How Legs Have Become a Feminist Issue

Once trousers were the symbol of liberty for women; now it is the opposite

Once trousers were the symbol of liberty for women; now it is the opposite

The wearing of trousers by women has always been loosely linked with liberty and emancipation.  Up until the 20th century they were viewed as men’s clothes. So much so that  in 1919 a Puerto Rican woman who wore them in public was sent to jail for her “crime”.  Since that time they have always been the undisputed staple of the feminist wardrobe and the freedom fighter.

But all that changed last week when Air France female flight attendants received a memo instructing them to be worn  on trips to Tehran.  Add  a “loose-fitting jacket and headscarf” before exiting the plane and the formula changes significantly. Trousers, in this instance, are symbolic of something quite different: conforming to an insidious form of domination through sexual intimidation. “If you suffer unwanted advances on flights and stopovers to Iran and your legs and hair are not fully covered, the fault is entirely your own.”

It’s clearly unjust and unacceptable on several fronts, so why aren’t orthodox feminists being more vocal on this point. Where are the street protests about “Save Our Skirts!” Or “Protect our Perms!”

Of course  trousers are so mainstream now, thanks to modern society, the majority of Western women “live in them”.  But the Air France incident is a prime example of a shift backwards from when we began to undervalue the exhibition of femininity in pursuit of something we believed to be a better deal at the time.

I suppose the common sense view is that self protection should be number one concern of the airlines.  However, on feminist grounds, it’s good to hear that the flight attendants are protesting. Vive la jupe!

Some Random Info on Women and Trousers:

During the Second World, because of clothes rationing, many women took to wearing their husbands trousers while he was off fighting to save the country. This was partly because male gear was more suitable to work in, but also so as not to spoil their own. That way they could save up precious coupons to buy fabric for dresses.

In the 1960s top clothes designer Andre Courreges introduced jeans for women and the era of designer leg wear was born.

In the US the Educational Amendments of 1972 declared dresses could not be required of girls at school.

Women were not allowed to wear trousers on the Senate Floor until 1993.

In 2013 a French by-law was evoked by the French Womens Minister, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem. Up until then Parisian  women were supposed to seek permission from city authorities before “dressing as men” in trousers. This dated back to the days of the Revolution and came about to stop women siding with the rebels who wore distinctive pantaloons.

In 1992 a 45 years old  Italian driving instructor was convicted of raping his student. His conviction was overturned in 1998 on the basis that his 18 year old victim wore such tight jeans that it would have been impossible for him to remove them without her help, thus indicating consensual sex.  Since then, Denim Day has been held in April as a symbol of protest against erroneous and destructive attitudes about sexual assault.

About Louise Burfitt-Dons

Writer and social critic
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