Permission from Rosa Bonheur to wear pants

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In the aftermath of the declarations of liberty, equality and fraternity of the French Revolution, the citizenship of women still had a long way to go. In 1800, for example, France banned the wearing of trousers by women. The arrangement admitted a few exceptions: pants on women during the traditional Carnival mayhem were acceptable, and women who had a certifiable medical need for pants could obtain a cross-dressing permission from the authorities.

A notorious trouser carrier, born Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin but better known as George Sand (1804-1876), notoriously went without a license and without punishment for his audacity. But in the 1880s, the application was “applied with particular rigorwrites researcher Gretchen van Slyke.

The most famous woman authorized by the police to wear trousers during the Third Republic (1870-1940) was the painter Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899). Like Sand, Bonheur was one of the few “empowered women who have entered the public sphere, who have professionally defined their lives, [and] who proudly and even insolently signified their dissident status by refusing marriage, smoking cigarettes and wearing pants.

Bonheur was also one of the most popular artists of her time, best known as animal, or animal painter. She was the first female artist to receive the Legion of Honorrand his work sold well, especially in Britain and America. Despite the fact that “she was as healthy as a horse and had no certifiable medical need for pants”, Bonheur received the permission in the 1850s, one of perhaps a dozen permit holders at the time.

The apparent reason was his profession. While most respectable women did not venture into the streets without a chaperon, Bonheur spent “long days sketching in the countryside, at horse fairs and even in slaughterhouses, standing in pools of blood.” She scoured fields, manure and barns to get the details of the horses, oxen and cows she depicted so skillfully. “In such harsh and unsanitary circumstances,” notes van Slyke, “where she was alone or entirely surrounded by men, the male disguise, in addition to the gun she sometimes carried, not only allowed her to move easily, but considerably reduced the dangers for her. himself.

Van Slyke proposes that the stricter enforcement of the law in the early Third Republic was due to a revival of feminism coupled with the medical establishment’s theorizing about the “perversions” of female cross-dressing and lesbianism. Indeed, Bonheur herself lived in an unconventional marriage to Nathalie Micas for decades, and after Micas passed away, she teamed up with American Anna Klumpke. However, none of these relationships were as much in the public eye as Bonheur’s fame for wearing pants.

Rosa Bonheur by André Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri via Wikimedia Commons

Although permitted to wear and even admired for her breeches, Bonheur readily accepted formal female attire for social, business, and state events. Van Slyke notes that visitors to her studio would be upset when she made them wait while she changed into skirts. They had come to see her in pants! One of Queen Victoria’s daughters even wanted pictures of her men’s clothes. And it’s not just the pants that made Bonheur a “recognizable” man: She was wearing a dress when she was arrested in Paris by a policeman who thought her short hair and “free and easy air” meant a young man in a robe.

Van Slyke views Bonheur’s strategic use of “masculine” and “feminine” costume as a “pragmatic gesture of emancipatory subversion”, his willingness to comply with the letter of the law as a sign of caution.

French law remained in force until this century, although enforcement had ceased a century earlier during World War I, foiled by cyclists, factory workers and the women’s suffrage movement.

Boneur’s reputation declined after his death as modernism revolted against his style of painting. Her fame as a friend of animals survived in the name of the first pet cemetery in the United States, established in 1935, and the first cemetery in the world where people could be buried alongside their pets, 1979 to 2006. This year, the bicentenary of his birth is recognized by a French stamp and the first exhibition of his work at the Musée d’Orsay.


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By: Gretchen van Slyke

French Studies of the Nineteenth Century, vol. 26, n° 3/4 (spring-summer 1998), p. 321-335

University of Nebraska Press

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