Paris and the politics of pants

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Women, wear pants in Paris at your risk and peril! You are breaking the law, according to a 200-year-old police ruling that has never been struck from the books.

"In 1800, a decree by the police prefecture banned women from wearing trousers unless they had specific authorisation," says the historian Christine Bard, author of a new book on women's "conquest" of the right to wear pants.

"The rule was never repealed - it still stands," said the author, whose newly-published "Political history of trousers" retraces the history of the garment from the French Revolution to the modern-day.

How generations of women overcame sexist taboos and conventions to co-opt trousers "was a long process, a struggle that reflected - and contributed to - a shift in relations between the sexes," Bard told AFP.

"Trousers were not only a symbol of male power, but of the separation of the sexes. A woman who wore trousers was accused of cross-dressing."

"She was seen as a threat to the natural order of things, to the social, moral and political order," said Bard.

Freedom to move, to act, to compete with men - the simple garment was so loaded with values that it was not until the 1970s that society was ready to let women fully adopt it as their own.

Pants became "an indicator of the progress of women's fight for equality," she said.

Bard pays tribute to pioneers like the French 19th-century writer George Sand, who dressed like a man with trousers, jacket and tie, for their part in the struggle for equal clothing rights.

Actresses like Marlene Dietrich, who sported pants in Hollywood in 1933, contributed to "eroticising the garment" as a femme fatale's tool.

Women's work in World War II-era factories - where the practical garment was the norm - was key in spreading acceptance of female trousers.

By the war's end, the garment was seen as an attribute of the "Freedom camp".

First seen on the catwalks in the 1960s, their use "spread massively in the 1970s, thanks to the struggle for women's rights, to sportswear from the United States and essentially to blue jeans," said Bard.

"And also thanks to the influence of Yves Saint Laurent, who dreamt of creating for women the equivalent of a man's wardrobe," she said, defining the genre with a women's dinner suit created in 1966.

But now the struggle is over, the right not to wear trousers is just as important. "What matters is the freedom to choose," she said - hinting that the next frontier in the West might be the right for men to wear skirts.

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