French history myths: It was illegal for women in France to wear trousers until 2013

The Local
The Local - [email protected] • 25 Aug, 2022 Updated Thu 25 Aug 2022 09:43 CEST
image alt text
Was Marlene Dietrich really arrested for wearing trousers in Paris, or was that an early piece of fake news? Photo by AFP

We know that Paris takes its fashion pretty seriously, but is it really true that a law banning women from wearing trousers was only finally abolished in 2013?


Myth: Although naturally plenty of women wear trousers in France it remained technically illegal right up until 2013 because of an old law.

Go back far enough in history and lots of European countries had strict laws in place governing what women could wear, while the Catholic Church regarded cross-dressing as heresy (remember Joan of Arc?).

But the issue of women's clothing became the formal subject of French law in 1800, with a stipulation that women who wished to "dress as men" were required to ask permission from police.


There are a couple of caveats to this, however;

  • This was a decree, not a law, and a penalty is not mentioned
  • The decree was published by the Paris Préfecture de Police, so it only ever applied in Paris and its suburbs, not the whole of France.

So did Paris police ever spend much time giving women trouser permits?

There are a handful of famous cases including the painter Rosa Bonheur who in 1857 obtained a 'permission de travestissement' (permission to cross-dress) from Paris police.

However it seems that only a couple of hundred permits were ever issued - mostly to women who wished to cross-dress, rather than women who wore trousers for practical or work-related reasons. 

By the late Nineteenth century trousers for women had become a political cause with (largely middle and upper class) 'rational dress' activists in the UK and US pointing out - not entirely unreasonably - that the women's fashions of the day with their long skirts and corsets were entirely impractical and severely restricted women's lives. 

The invention of the bicycle was something of a game-changer and 'bloomers' - a kind of Turkish-style loose trousers - were popularised for lady cyclists, quickly becoming a fashionable item of clothing that was adopted in cities including Paris.

Despite the permit requirement seeming to be largely defunct since the early 1900s, it appears to have lingered much longer in the popular imagination.

In 1933 film star Marlene Dietrich came to Paris on a publicity tour, wearing her trademark men's suits, and it was reported in the American press that she had been arrested under the French trouser law.

The only problem with this story is that there is no official record of her arrest and the French press never mention an arrest or any police involvement, despite covering the visit of Dietrich in breathless detail - including much comment on her trousers - so it seems that this is an early example of fake news. 


The trouser law made international headlines again in 2013, when it was reported that it had finally been repealed.

However, as we have noted this was never actually a national law in the first place so it could not be repealed - all that happened was that Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the women's minister at the time, formally stated that no-one could ever be prosecuted under this decree because it is incompatible with the current French constitution and equality laws.

Formally withdrawing it would be a matter for the Paris police préfecture who have shown no particular interest in doing so, although as far back as 1930 the Paris police chief at the time Jean Chiappe stated in a letter as part of a civil court case (the French athletics federation was attempting to expel athlete and trouser-wearer Violette Morris) that women in trousers were no longer the subject of police attention. 

This article is part of our August series on popular myths and misconceptions about French history.



The Local 2022/08/25 09:43

Please keep comments civil, constructive and on topic – and make sure to read our terms of use before getting involved.

Please log in to leave a comment.

See Also