This picture has been shared online with the description that it shows Marlene Dietrich as she is being detained by police for wearing trousers in public during her arrival in Paris in 1933.
That’s not the case.
As I was researching this story I found this article on the ‘Ask Historians’ Reddit page.
It is well written, properly researched and it answered all my questions, so I asked the author ‘gerardmenfin‘ if I could place it on my website and he agreed.
Here’s what he wrote;
This raised two interesting questions: 1) was Marlene Dietrich actually arrested by the French police for wearing trousers and 2) was there really a law in 1933 France against trousers-wearing women? I wrote a comment answering Question n°1, but it was lost among 1300 comments so I may as well post it here. One day someone will ask it on AH. I’ll also take the opportunity to address Question n°2.
Was Marlene Dietrich actually arrested by the French police for wearing trousers?
No she wasn’t. In May 1933, Dietrich was allowed by Paramount to take a European holiday. She boarded the Europa in New York, with her daughter Maria and “luggage containing twenty-five suits of male clothes, dozens of men’s shirts, neckties and sock” (Spoto, 1992). On 19 May 1933, she arrived at Cherbourg where she was welcomed by her husband Rudolf Sieber (on the right on the picture), and they took the train to Paris. There was a mob of reporters waiting for her at the Saint-Lazare station, but she was tired, got in a car and left immediately, which pissed off some reporters.
The French press did comment extensively on her “masculine” outfit: trousers, tie, chocolate-coloured polo coat, white shirt, sunglasses, and beret. Her daugther was also dressed like her (minus the tie) (here !). Some comments were supportive buy many were mocking her gender-bending appearance and there were cartoons such as this one (a man ogles an “effeminate” person and says “hey, that could be Marlene Dietrich“). And then there is this odd picture where she is greeted by a skirt-wearing porter. Still, she was an immense star and the French press fawned over her, trousers notwithstanding.
In any case, there are no mentions of the police arresting Marlène Dietrich, which would have made the front pages all around the world if it had happened. The closest Dietrich came to know the French police was when she was invited by Mrs Chiappe, the wife of the Chief of Police in Paris, to a fundraiser for retired police officers. Dietrich attended the event, “masculine attire forsaken, […] dressed in modish green with lynx furs, looking very lovely” (The Chicago Tribune and the Daily News, 13 June).
Still, Donad Spoto’s biography mentions that the French police “seriously considered a warrant” for impersonating a man, and Steven Bach’s biography claims that she and Sieber “read official warnings from the indignant Prefecture de Police”. The first claim is unsourced but the second is credited to an American newspaper. And indeed, US newspapers reported that the above mentioned Jean Chiappe had threatened Dietrich with arrest if she walked around in men’s clothes: (The Waterbury Democrat, 22 May).
Paris Police Are Liable to Take Both Before Court If She Doesn’t Wear Dresses Paris, May 22— Gendarmes, observing Marlene Dietrich and her trousers, were enjoined today to remember that they are the eye of the law. Chief of Police Jean Chiappe’s office ruled that Miss Dietrich would receive official attention if she violated the ordinance which forbids a woman to attract attention by wearing men’s clothing in Paris and its environs. Apparently it will be all right if she does not attract attention. Outside of Paris, Miss Dietrich may wear pants or pajamas, it was said, but she will risk arrest if she wears her trousers around the capital. Miss Dietrich is vacationing in the suburb of Versailles, and is wearing trousers regularly in stead of dresses.
However, no such thing was reported in French newspapers, even though they followed closely Chiappe’s activities. It is unlikely that Chiappe would threaten publicly an international movie star while trying to get her to attend a charity event organized by his wife two weeks later. It is more likely that a US reporter, annoyed at being snubbed off by the star when she had arrived in Paris, did some creative “reporting” by listening to rumours. Parisian newspapers did mention the “law against trousers” and a theoretical action of the police against Dietrich, but only as a joke (On dit que…, L’Intransigeant, 21 May), or to criticize it (L’Œuvre, 21 May):
Our country has nothing to gain from this prudish attitude.
So the idea that women were forbidden to wear trousers was indeed circulating, and some did consider Dietrich, famous trousers aficionada, a potential target. But, as notes historian Christine Bard in her Histoire politique du pantalon, the bit about Chiappe was merely a rumour (Bard, 2010).
Which leads us to the second question.
But was there really a law in France against trousers-wearing women?
Yes, sort of, but it’s complicated. I’ll follow Christine Bard, who studied this strange “law” in books and articles.
On 7 November 1800, the Prefecture de Police in Paris enacted an ordinance (not a law since it was not voted by the parliament) that stated that
any woman wishing to dress as a man must go to the Prefecture of Police to obtain authorisation, which can only be given on the basis of a certificate from a health officer
At a fundamental level, the ordinance was against cross-dressing, an old social no-no except in certain circumstances. Bard has researched the Archives of the Prefecture with little results. A couple of hundred women may have obtained the cross-dressing permit throughout the 19th century. Some were famous, like painter Rosa Bonheur and archeologist Jane Dieulafoy. Others were women who worked in a traditional masculine trade and needed to be dressed appropriately. By the end of the century, only a handful of women had the permit. For Bard, the ordinance was probably rarely used, and there was no penalty mentioned anyway. Its purpose was more dissuasive than repressive. By the early 1900s, the evolution of women’s clothing had rendered the ordinance outdated and useless.
However, even though it was no longer a practical concern, the “law” remained for decades in the public consciousness.
This was shown notably during the civil suit that opposed sportswoman Violette Morris and the Fédération Féminine Sportive (FFS): Morris, who always wore male clothes and who would be considered as transgender today, was one of the most remarkable athletes of her time (javelin, shot put, bike racing, car racing, football, boxing, swimming…) but she was known to be aggressive against referees and fellow athletes. When the FFS tried to kick her out, preventing her from participating in the Olympics, one of the arguments used was her cross-dressing. During the trial that took place in 1930, the FSS lawyer, Yvonne Netter (herself a feminist activist), reminded the court that “the ordinance existed” and that Morris could be arrested by the police since she did not have that famous authorization. Henri Lot, Morris’ defender, argued back that the ordinance was invalid and proved it by showing a letter from Prefect Chiappe that confirmed that women in trousers were no longer the object of police attention. Morris lost her suit anyway. It was probably on people’s minds when the rumour about Chiappe threatening Marlène Dietrich with arrest circulated in May 1933.
Since then, the question of the repeal of the ordinance of 1800 has resurfaced on a regular basis in French politics, usually as an easy way to score points. Who can be opposed to striking down a “law” preventing women from wearing trousers? The last iteration took place in 2013, when the Ministry of Women’s Rights answered that the ordinance was incompatible with the principles of equality between women and men guaranteed by the Constitution (and other texts) and had thus no legal status, being just a “piece of archive”. But Christine Bard, after consulting a legal scholar, notes that this is only an opinion, and that the Ministry does not have jurisdiction over the Prefecture (who has refused so far to consider the issue). So, technically, the ordinance is still valid… Practically, it has been dead for more than a century.
- “Le pantalon de Marlène Dietrich.” L’Œuvre, May 21, 1933. https://www.retronews.fr/journal/l-oeuvre/21-mai-1933/361/2520323/1.
- “Marlène Dietrich est passée hier à Paris.” Le Petit Journal, May 20, 1933. https://www.retronews.fr/journal/le-petit-journal/20-mai-1933/100/405975/1.
- “Marlene Dietrich is back in Paris but it’s all very secret.” The Chicago Tribune and the Daily News, June 13, 1933. https://www.retronews.fr/journal/the-chicago-tribune-and-the-daily-news-new-york/13-juin-1933/1729/2873305/2.
- “Miss Dietrich and Trousers Face Trouble.” The Waterbury Democrat, May 22, 1933.
- “On dit que…” L’Intransigeant, May 21, 1933. https://www.retronews.fr/journal/l-intransigeant/21-mai-1933/44/910153/2.
- “Pour recevoir Marlène Dietrich. Le sex-appeal du porteur, ou le triomphe de l’Eternel masculin.” Marianne, May 31, 1933. https://www.retronews.fr/journal/marianne/31-mai-1933/797/2548091/1.
- “Voir l’Intran.” L’Intransigeant, June 15, 1933. https://www.retronews.fr/journal/l-intransigeant/15-juin-1933/44/910177/5.
- Bach, Steven. Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend. William Morrow & Co, 1992.
- Bard, Christine. Une histoire politique du pantalon. Média Diffusion, 2010. https://books.google.fr/books?id=DSckrxx_YUEC.
- Bard, Christine. “Le droit au pantalon.” La Vie des idées, March 1, 2013. https://laviedesidees.fr/Le-droit-au-pantalon.html.
- Spoto, Donald. Blue Angel: The Life of Marlene Dietrich. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
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