France: All mouth and no trousers

France: All mouth and no trousers

In 2016, France thought it was giving Muslim women freedom by forbidding the burkini. Mayors of 30 French beach resorts sparked worldwide anger and controversy when they banned the full-body swimsuit, seen by many as the symbol of women’s enslavement.

Although France’s highest administrative court overturned the decree concluding that it was illegal, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls defended the ban. At a socialist party meeting he said: “Marianne has a naked breast because she is feeding the people! She is not veiled, because she is free! That is the Republic!”

But if Marianne wasn’t veiled, she wasn’t free either. Long before the controversial burkini bans French women have struggled for the right to dress without having to obey political restrictions.

For 213 years women had been legally forbidden from wearing trousers in Paris. Though unenforced for the past eight decades, it wasn’t until the 31st January 2013 that the law was declared null and void.

Cross-dressing authorisation / Permission de travestissement - 1862
Cross-dressing authorisation for Adèle Sidonie Louis who needed to wear trousers for medical reasons (28 October 1862)

The Law of 7 November 1800, entitled “Ordinance concerning women’s mode of dress”, banned women from wearing any form of menswear in Paris. It required women to seek official permission from police if they wanted to “dress like a man” and to provide medical reasons for doing so. It was issued after the French Revolution, when working-class women were demanding the right to wear trousers in their fight for equal rights.

The Revolution unleashed the power of women, in the street and in higher-class salons.

In January 1789, they sent the “Pétition des femmes du Tiers Etat au roi” (Petition of Women of the Third Estate to the King), a pamphlet addressed to King Louis XVI and calling for better working conditions and education equality.

On the morning of 5 October 1789 they played a leading role moving the revolution forward by marching over the high price and scarcity of bread. They were joined by Revolutionaries and the demonstration, called “The Women’s March on Versailles”, resulted in the siege of the Palace and the end of the monarchy.


Two years later, Olympe de Gouges, playwright and feminist, published The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen. The Declaration called for equality in education, marriage and the right for women to own and inherit property.

Liberty Leading the People - Eugène Delacroix
Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix (1830) – although exposed breasts were acceptable, trousers were not

But the abolition of privilege and the definition of individual freedoms that came with the Revolution did not put an end to male domination. Men feared the growing power of women and prohibited women’s organisations and political meetings.
Equal rights didn’t extend to women, who were legally forbidden to wear trousers as a way to prevent them from challenging men’s role in society and to limit their access to certain jobs.

At the time trousers were worn by the lower classes fighting for the revolution, as opposed to the knee-breeches or culottes favoured by the bourgeoisie. An emblem of the Revolutionaries, trousers stood for the new social order defined by the values of “liberty, equality and fraternity” and became a symbol of power. Men were the citizens, therefore only men could wear trousers.

Paul Poiret - harem pants and sultana skirt - 1911
Paul Poiret insisted that rather than “masculinizing”a women, harem pants showed her “in all the harmony of her form and all the freedom of her native suppleness” (Classic Chic by Mary Davis. Photo: L’Illustration, 1911)

The trend for women to wear trousers in France began in the early 20th century, when French designer Paul Poiret designed harem pants, one of the first trousers created for women and inspired by Eastern culture.

Coco Chanel also played a great role in establishing trousers’ popularity as a fashion item. Rebelling against the gender restrictions of the fashion industry she wore her boyfriend’s outfits and designed trousers for women to wear while doing sports.

World War I hastened the trend as women wore trousers to the factory jobs that men had vacated for the front lines.

However the law was applied in the 1930s when the French Olympic committee stripped the French athlete Violette Morris of her medals because she insisted on wearing trousers.

When women were finally declared equal to men in the French Constitution in 1946, wearing trousers was still illegal. Nevertheless, as time went on, they became in vogue thanks to fashion designers such as André Courrèges and Yves Saint Laurent, making trousers an essential item of a woman’s wardrobe.


If my trousers offend you, I’ll take them off at once

Michèle Alliot-Marie – French politician

But if trousers for women were popular in France by the 1970’s and became a symbol of women’s emancipation, they continued to stir passion.

According to RT, when in 1972, then cabinet advisor Michèle Alliot-Marie appeared at the Assemblée Nationale in trousers, she was apprehended by the guard at the door. “If my trousers offend you, I’ll take them off at once,” she replied. The matter was dropped.

Four years later, Alice Saunier-Seïté, then universities minister, was criticised by Prime Minister Jacques Chirac in 1976 for wearing trousers. He said such attire was “defaming both her position [as minister] and the image of France.”  To which she replied: “I have to hide my legs because they are horrible!” It wasn’t until 1980 that female members of the Assemblée Nationale were allowed to wear trousers.

There were attempts in 2004 and 2010 to have the law repealed. But the unenforced order was said to be trivial, and repealing it would mean “removing a piece of judicial archeology”.

Finally, in 2012, a request by the french centre-right political party UMP (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire) resulted in France’s minister of women’s rights Najat Vallaud-Belkacem taking action. When revoking the law in 2013 she said the bill belonged “in a museum”.  And added: “This law is incompatible with the principles of equality between men and women which is laid out in the Constitution and in France’s European commitments”.

Although women are now legally allowed to wear trousers, women are still judged, criticised and harassed because of the way they dress. Real freedom will come when women will be able to wear what they please and when society will protect that choice. After all, as American actress Blake Lively said: “The most beautiful thing you can wear is confidence”.

Alia Chebbab


Featured image: Woman in Paris wearing trousers, 2013 – Photo: Jean-François Gornet/Wikicommons

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