Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité… and Trousers

Tourists visiting France soon learn that certain things can really irritate the natives. Daring to desecrate French bread with butter, speaking English, or mispronouncing a French word are just a few of those things that can trigger a rude muttering of, “Sacré bleu!”

On a positive note, at least it’s permissible for women to wear pants.

Considering that this author recently spent 30 minutes in a neighborhood Walmart, where at least ten percent of the clientele couldn’t be bothered to change out of their sleepwear before heading to the store, it may seem as if all the rules about how to dress have been thrown out the window. In France’s case, the discarded rule had the effect of covering up more legs — especially the female ones.

Back in 1800, the Paris Préfecture de Police published a decree that all women who wished to “dress as men” had to first obtain permission from the police. The primary bone of contention that prompted this regulation was the shocking trend by some women of wearing trousers.

Although the decree did not indicate what the penalty for disobedience might be, it appears to have been taken seriously. One of the more notable examples was the painter Rosa Bonheur. In 1857, she requested and obtained a “permission de travestissement” (permission to cross-dress) from Paris police.

The records show a couple of hundred permits were issued in the years following the decree. By the late 1800s, women’s fashion began to give way to “rational dress,” shunning the corsets and floor-length dresses. A movement toward practical clothing that wasn’t quite as restrictive brought increasing challenges and disregard for the no-trousers decree.

Marlene Dietrich visiting France in 1933. Contrary to popular legend, it does not depict her being arrested for wearing pants.

When the bicycle became popular, so did bloomers — Turkish-style, loose-fitting pants. Bloomers became trendy not only for bicycle riding but for everyday activities. As a result, the no-trousers decree stopped being regularly enforced. It did not, however, get stricken from the books.

In 1933, American newspapers reported that movie actress Marlene Dietrich was arrested when she showed up in Paris in her trademark men’s suits. The story appears to have been fake news, however. There is no record of any arrest or police involvement, nor did any French news sources report any kind of legal problems for Dietrich during her visit.

Just three years earlier, the French athletics federation attempted to expel Violette Morris, a notorious female trouser-wearer fact. Paris Police Chief Jean Chiappe wrote a letter in connection with a civil court case that women in trousers were of no interest to the French police.

Although that would seem to have brought an end to the no-trousers decree, perhaps someone interpreted the chief’s comment to mean that French policemen had a personal preference for well-dressed, skirt-clad mademoiselles and could not be bothered to turn an eye toward the unkempt trouser-wearing sort. Regardless, the decree remained unenforced, but still on the books.

It wasn’t until 2013 that women could freely wear pants without living in continual fear that their covered legs would run them afoul of the authorities. In that year, the French women’s minister, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, formally repealed the decree, stating that it was incompatible with the current French constitution and equality laws.

For the past decade, trouser-clad women have joyfully declared, Liberté, égalité, fraternité, et pantalones.

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