After 200 years, Paris drops trousers as banned attire for women
Without fear of prosecution ... French Minister for Women's Rights Najat Vallaud-Belkacem. Photo: AFP
Hold on to your berets, ladies. When travelling through gay Paris from now on you'll be able to wear your trousers without the threat of arrest. Qu'est-ce que c'est?, you well may ask.
As reported this week, the world's fashion capital has finally quashed a 200-year-old law that forbade women in Paris ''dress(ing) as men''.
The 1800 law, which required women to ask police for permission to wear trousers, had twice before been amended - or ''modernised'' - allowing women to slip into their slacks only if they were on the back of a horse (1892) or a bicycle (1909).
While attempts to repeal the law were repeatedly ignored, in part because officials said the unenforced rule was not a priority, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, France's Minister of Women's Rights, decided the relic of French ''legal archaeology'' finally be given an official burial.
Of course, news that Paris had ever had such a law came as something of a shock. I mean, how could something so, well, old-fashioned come out of a city that gave us such style beacons and dedicated slacks-wearers as Camille, Jane Birkin and Coco Chanel - the latter a veritable champion of androgynous sportswear?
But Paris isn't the only fashion Mecca to turn a blind eye to archaic fashion laws. New York has a few of its own that include the banning of slippers worn outside after 10pm, high heels in and around Camel (a small town in New York State) and body-hugging clothing on the street.
As far as I know Australia has no such laws or rules dictating what we wear or where we wear it, but that doesn't mean there haven't been less-than-subtle expectations pushed upon women to dress ''appropriately'', as the local popularity of SlutWalk, the global walk against sexism, attests.
After all, fashion is designed to make a statement. The T-shirt industry alone has made a fortune on the back (or, more to the point, down the front) of our beliefs, tastes and desires. What we wear says much about us (goth, ''yummy mummy'', office nerd). It goes to the heart of who we are (or want to be).
Aside from food, clothing is perhaps our most significant cultural signifier. It can also act as a barometer. Last year, a campaign group of young Dubai women began calling for a stricter dress code for tourists in line with Muslim law. It was a reminder that our freedom should not come at the expense of a nation's discomfort.
Meanwhile, in 2010, the mayor of Castellammare di Stabia, in the south of Naples, took it upon himself to join the fashion police and fine women who wore ''very short'' miniskirts or showed too much cleavage.
While the Dubai campaign was driven by the need for cultural sensitivity, the mayor's crusade to raise the ''level of public decorum'' seemed to go against the very grain of what it was to be Italian. His focus on young women, however, didn't betray an ingrained sexism so much as support the theory that dinosaurs were running the country. (This is, after all, the country that gave us Silvio ''double-entendres'' Berlusconi and bunga bunga parties.)
It may have taken 200 years, but it is the stubbornly pervasive ghost of sexual inequality that the Paris law revision finally shook off.
''This ordinance is incompatible with the principles of equality between women and men, which are listed in the constitution, and in France's European commitments,'' Vallaud-Belkacem wrote in a subsequent statement.
Cosmopolitan, quixotic and daring Paris had finally decided that having such a rule hanging over its stylish heads damaged the nation's very ''modern sensibilities''. To remove it, therefore, took on the urgency of ''symbolic importance''.
Let's not underestimate the power and timing of a symbolic act. In righting past wrongs, last year Oxford University went where no institution had gone before when it made changes to its dress code to meet the needs of its transgender students. The new code stated that students sitting exams or attending formal occasions would ''no longer have to wear ceremonial clothing specific to their gender''.
The revised rules threw open the cupboards of traditional gender stereotypes. Now when male Oxford University students sit exams they can do so in skirts and stockings, if they so chose. Conversely, women are invited to wear a suit and tie.
Without the distraction of a forced dress code the transgender students are now free to concentrate on something important, such as their studies. Just imagine what those Parisians, who already sport skinny jeans and, even, horrendous harem pants, will do for fashion now that they aren't left holding the ''reins of a horse'' or ''handlebars of a bicycle''.
Jen Vuk is a freelance writer.