It Just Became Legal for Parisian Women to Wear Pants

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Liberte! Egalite! Trousers!

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She used to be a menace to society. Now she's just a picnicker. (Shutterstock/Ekaterina Pokrovsky)

In 1799, the police chief of Paris made a decree: Any woman wishing to wear pants must seek special permission from the police. If a lady wanted to "dress like a man," she had to get approval--with said approval often necessitating a medical justification for exposing her legs.

The law had its roots in the same thing so many French laws did back then: the revolution. Pants signified not only default masculinity; as the common uniform of the common man, they also symbolized the rise of the working class against the bourgeoisie. (The aristocracy regularly wore the blousing, knee-length britches known as "culottes," giving the rebels one of the most delightful nicknames in history: "les sans-culottes.") Female rebels, at the time, wanted the right to wear pants alongside their male counterparts, Le Parisien Daily explains; banning women from trouser-wearing was thus an effective way of banning them from the rank and file of the revolution--and of keeping them, basically, in their place.

So the pantsless-in-Paris decree was the product of a particular historical circumstance. What's amazing, though, is that it lived on--far longer than the revolution itself. And far into, and then beyond, the 20th century. In 1892, and again in 1909, French lawmakers took the time to amend the "no pants" law, ostensibly in the name of rendering it more fitting for the times. After the updates, a lady might legally don trouser-esque "pantaloons" were she to find herself in the potentially compromising circumstances of "holding the handlebars of a bicycle or the reins of a horse." (Merci for that, etc.)

The law persisted even after, in 1946, an article was included in the French Constitution specifying that "the law guarantees women equal rights with men in all areas." At which point it became something of pantsless joke.

Until, that is, it sort of stopped being funny. In 2010, a group of Green Party lawmakers introduced a bill in the National Assembly to strike down the law (and to fight, more generally, other aspects of France's "judicial archaeology"). The Paris Prefecture, the ancestor of the body that had enacted the decree in the first place, responded that, the law being comically outmoded, it wasn't worth the effort to remove from the books.

Things might have ended there--millions of denim-wearing, capri-clad demoiselles breaking the law like the rest of us, one leg at at time--were it not for Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, France's minister of women's rights. The minister argued that the anti-trouser law as a symbol, if not an enforced edict, could "injure our modern sensibilities." She drafted a statement, released last week, calling the ordinance "incompatible with the principles of equality between women and men that are written into the Constitution and in France's European commitments." 

So there it is: More than 200 years after it was initially drafted, the law was repealed. By a lady. Who may or may not have been wearing pants.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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