This French archaeologist broke the law—by wearing pants

Jane Dieulafoy wore men's clothes in the 1800s, but France looked the other way. She became a celebrity, renowned for discovering ancient Persian treasures.

Jane Dieulafoy defied a 100-year-old law when she donned trousers. It had been illegal for Parisian women to wear pants since November 1800. Historians believe the rule was a response to women’s demand for “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” and the right to hold male jobs and wear male clothing. In the late 19th century, exceptions were granted for people engaged in bicycle riding or horseback riding. Jane Dieulafoy’s privilege of wearing pants all the time was uncommon, but her celebrity made her nonconformity more socially accepted. The law remained in place until 2013, when it was formally revoked by the French government.
ENSBA/RMN-GRAND PALAIS

An archaeologist, explorer, and writer in fin de siècle France, Jane Dieulafoy was awarded two remarkable distinctions by the French government in her lifetime: the Legion of Honor, France’s highest civilian award, and special legal permission to wear men’s clothing in public.

Born Jane Magre in 1851 in the southern French city of Toulouse, Dieulafoy grew up in a traditional family and inherited their social and religious values. She was a devout Catholic who opposed divorce, and a patriot who broke rules to fight for her country. Her conservative stances partly explain why she was “never denigrated as a hysteric or a pervert, more likely labels for 19th-century women in pants,” said Rachel Mesch, author of a biographical study of Dieulafoy, Before Trans: Three Gender Stories From 19th-Century France.

The other reason her preferences were accepted was her very close, 46-year marriage with the distinguished civil engineer Marcel-Auguste Dieulafoy, and the stunning archaeological discoveries both made at the ancient capital of Susa in western Iran. Their work provided the Louvre Museum with unique artifacts for a new wing devoted to Iran that opened in 1888. From then on, the press referred to Dieulafoy as simply “the intrepid explorer who wears men’s suits.”

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