A Relic of French Legal Archaeology is Finally Buried

Vive la France! The French government recently repealed an archaic French law, dating back to 1799. The law in question prohibited women from wearing a certain item of male clothing. Waistcoats? No. Berets? Wrong. Ties? Not even those. The offending garments were…

…trousers. I wrote about it here a while ago.

At the time, I thought the legislation applied throughout France but it appears that it was only our Parisian sisters’ pantalons that were thus proscribed. The Paris chief of police promulgated the law to prevent women from being mistaken for male revolutionaries.

Several amendments were introduced during the law’s history: notably in 1892, for women holding the reins of a horse (why?) and in 1909 for women riding bicycles (more understandable). Apart from that, this daft regulation has remained unchanged on the statute books for two centuries. This means that famous trouser-wearing women, such as writer George Sand and fashion designer Coco Chanel, were in flagrant violation of the law.

France’s minister for women’s rights, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, officially repealed the law after the latest representations from the right-wing UMP party. Previous attempts, notably by the Green Party in 2010, were unsuccessful. She stated that maintaining the law in force was “contrary to the principles of equality between men and women.”

I have been unable to find out if the law was ever invoked against defiant trouser-wearing Parisiennes. It plainly hasn’t been for a long time, so Vallaud-Belkacem’s action is purely symbolic. It will have little practical effect on a country that is still deficient in some regards when it comes to women’s rights – despite attempts by successive governments to promote equality through legislation. If you don’t believe me, have a look at the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2012, which ranked France in 57th place out of 132 countries in terms of the economic gap between genders.

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  1. Hello Vanessa
    This is all about the ” sans culottes ” thing and dates back to the French Revolution. I did a mention on Tag on- line. We have a French friend who calls socialist women ” sans culottes”
    The poor women who supported the Revolution wore trousers and the more aristocratic wore culottes. So trousers were banned and the law has just been repealed. I think I am a ” sans culottes”
    Val Johnstone
    Ps Malc thought it meant they did not wear knickers ! men!


    • Hi Val,
      Thanks for the info. Quite right: the revolutionaries refused to wear the “culottes” – knee-length trousers worn with stockings – that were a symbol of the ancien régime. Instead they wore longer, striped, more proletarian trousers. The women generally wore striped skirts but some wore the trousers, too. But, of course, at that time culottes had nothing to do with underwear! I am sure you have disabused Malc of that notion!
      P.S. I was sorry to miss Martyn Cox’s resistance talk – found out only after the event. A lesson to me to look at Taglines more often.


      • Martyn Cox gave such an interesting talk on the SOE’ s and Resistance in France and so many people wanted to hear more that I am sure another talk will be arranged. There were 45 people on the night , many coming long distances on a cold miserable evening, so the interest is there. I will send you a reminder when the next one is planned.


        • I do hope he agrees to do another one. I would certainly like to come. A reminder would be great – but I will try to keep myself better informed.


  2. They didn’t give women the vote until 1944 and it seems as if in payment for so doing, the women were all sent out to work and the institutions for child minding set up, so work became the priority over family for a period (during the Vichy regime the values were in this order Travail, Famille, Patrie), the values may have since changed but the tradition stayed, however while many women do in fact work, the hierarchy in the workplace is of a much more traditional kind, not nearly as progressive as it could have the potential to be.


    • I think that’s a valid point. After World War I the emphasis was on filling the gap created by the war and having as many babies as possible – that’s why they gave out medals for having large families. The emphasis switched to work but, while many women did and do work, they are still expected to keep the birthrate up, keep the home fires burning and often accept less recompense – hence the gender economy gap. In fact, France is quite advanced when it comes to childminding etc but the mindset in the workplace has lagged behind.


  3. Such a fascinating story Vanessa. I find it hard to believe France is ranked 57th in terms of the gender gap!! We always think of France as advanced and sophisticated (which I’m sure it is?!); reading your blog continues to educate as well as take me on a regular virtual tour! Thanks.
    When I was growing up, my father would not let us wear trousers (mum, and four daughters) as well as the colours red and purple (prostitute colours!!!), nothing to do with French law, but his fundamentalist upbringing. We have come a long way, but still a long way to go…


    • Interestingly, France is advanced, sophisticated and backward at the same time!

      I’m amazed to hear about your father’s rules – no red and purple! You must have had a red and purple bender when you left home!


  4. Madness!
    I’ve blogged a couple of times about the lack of equality in education. France really is lagging behind in the equality stakes, but maybe the symbolic, long overdue repealing of this law means things are starting to move a little quicker in the right direction.


    • We can only hope so. Unfortunately in France, despite government efforts to legislate for more equality, in practice it doesn’t seem to work like that.


  5. Well, that took them long enough. I guess what must seem to the fellas unimportant law reforms, get neglected year in year out. Time we took over, I say. Scotsmen better watch out then!


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