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.

By Arnaud Déroche, Raúl Sánchez
Published 18 Dec 2020, 20:56 GMT
Jane Dieulafoy defied a 100-year-old law when she donned trousers. It had been illegal for Parisian ...
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.
Photograph by 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 Honour, 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.

Photographed in the 1880s at the Persian royal necropolis of Naqsh-e Rostam, Jane Dieulafoy stands in front of two fire altars from the Zoroastrian Sassanian period.
Photograph by Rue Des Archives, Album

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.”

Soldier Jane

Jane met Marcel in their hometown of Toulouse in 1869, soon after she finished her education at a convent outside Paris; her studies had encompassed history, ancient and modern languages, art, and painting. After Marcel returned from Algeria to oversee infrastructure repairs, they married in May 1870.

Engineer and architect. Marcel Dieulafoy, circa 1900.
Photograph by Aurimages

In Marcel, Jane found the ideal companion, someone with a passion for architecture and travel, who also accepted her on her own terms. Two months later, the Franco-Prussian War broke out, and Marcel enlisted as a captain of engineers. Jane wanted to join him, but not in the role of the cantinières, the women who brought food and water to soldiers. She wanted to fight and managed to become a sharpshooter by using a loophole that exempted those in that role from army regulations. She cut her hair, donned a sharpshooter’s uniform, and faced battle.

After the war, in May 1871, Jane returned to Toulouse, wore skirts again, and grew out her short hair. Marcel resumed working as a civil engineer. Within a few years, the renowned French architect Viollet-le-Duc put Marcel in charge of the city’s historical monuments. The Dieulafoys shared an interest in Islamic art and culture, and between 1873 and 1878 made several architectural tours to Egypt and Morocco.

Viollet-le-Duc encouraged Marcel to investigate the links between European Gothic architecture and Middle Eastern or Islamic architecture. In 1879, when Marcel was granted leave from his position to travel to Persia, Jane threw herself into the study of Persian history and Farsi, bought a camera, and took a course in photography in preparation for the trip. (Persia, history's first superpower sprang from ancient Iran.)

Pull of Persia

In February 1881 Jane and Marcel began their first epic 3,700-mile journey to Persia with the goal of reaching Susa. For convenience’s sake, the 30-year-old Jane dressed as a man once more, which allowed her to travel through Persia without having to adhere to local traditions for women. She wore no veil and rode on horseback without an escort. The couple battled illness, insects, thieves, and poor roads, and made it to Susa in January 1882. Worn out and short of funds, they could not contend with heavy rains and returned.

Throughout the journey, Jane kept detailed diaries and photographed architecture and monuments. She also photographed everyday people. Assertions that her unique status as a woman dressed as a man enabled her to move freely in harems to photograph their residents is hard to credit, scholars say. In fact, no such photograph has been found.

Her diaries were published in the French travel magazine, Le Tour du Monde, illustrated with photographs and sketches. Her work became hugely popular, putting her on the A-list for the lecture circuit. Having made her mark in travel writing, Jane went on to write successful historical novels. The French composer Camille Saint-Saëns later turned one of these—Parysatis (1890), about the queen of ancient Persia—into an opera with Jane providing the libretto. In addition, her photographs illustrated Marcel’s five-volume Ancient Art of Persia, published 1884-89. (A reborn Persian Empire captured Rome's lands—and its emperor.)

Newspaper from the excavations at Susa. Hachette, 1888
Photograph by Akg, Album

Return to Susa

The couple’s research won them the support of Louis de Ronchaud, director of France’s National Museums, and in 1884 with the backing of the Louvre and the French government, the couple returned to Susa.

More than three decades before, in 1851, the British archaeologist William Kennett Loftus had first identified Susa as the biblical site of Shushan, making it one of the world’s oldest cities. According to his work, it was continuously inhabited from the late fifth millennium B.C. until the 13th century A.D.

On discovery, the Frieze of Lions and the Frieze of Archers were nothing more than heaps of bricks. Seeing herself as their “archaeological mother,” Jane Dieulafoy managed organizing and labeling the pieces for reassembly. Both remain major draws at the Louvre Museum, Paris.

Photograph by Roger Viollet, Aurimages

Loftus made a plan of the ruins, which included the Tomb of Daniel, the biblical prophet. He also conducted limited excavations in 1854-55, locating the apadana (audience hall) of a palace built by the Persian king Darius I (r. 522-486 B.C.), who made it the administrative capital of his empire, and was later restored by Artaxerxes II (r. 404-359 B.C.). Thirty years later, Jane and Marcel made the discoveries that had eluded Loftus. Excavations began in February 1885 and ended in 1886, with the approval of Naser al-Din, Shah of Persia (who at first refused to believe that Jane was a woman) in exchange for part of whatever was discovered, especially any gold and silver. (Babylon was the jewel of the ancient world.)

One aspect of the agreement was a promise not to excavate the Tomb of Daniel, which locals feared would incur divine wrath. Jane and Marcel, however, had their eyes on the palace; they hired some 300 locals to do the excavating. Jane kept tabs on the work and recorded the artifacts that came to light, most of which dated to the time of Darius I, under whom the Persian Empire reached its peak, expanding from the Nile and the Aegean in the west to modern Pakistan.

The first great discovery at Susa was a frieze of glazed bricks that decorated the palace, depicting a series of roaring lions. Jane managed excavations in that area, which soon yielded fragments of the 70-foot-tall columns that supported the roof of the apadana. Alongside were remnants of bulls’ heads that had crowned each of them. Soon after, they found the famous Frieze of Archers.

Frieze of Archers (detail) made of glazed brick, from the palace of Darius I in Susa, Western Iran, sixth century B.C.
Photograph by H. Lewandowski, RMN Grand Palais

Carrying bows and arrows, these warriors depicted in gleaming bricks of blue and green, became Jane’s obsession. As Mesch says in her biography, she regarded the archers as her fils, “sons” in French. Painstakingly making the pieces whole again, Jane wrote of how she was bringing back to life “the glorious past of the great kings with my own hands.”

“I have a special recipe for figuring out where the enamel fragments belong,” she wrote, describing how she would leave the pieces in front of her before bed, and when she woke up in the morning they would seem to fall magically into place. When the excavation was complete, some 30 mules and more than 40 camels helped transport the 45 tons of material to the ship that took them to France.

Last years

Back home, Jane and Marcel were feted by Parisian society and treated as celebrities. In 1886 the French government awarded Jane the Legion of Honour, one of the nation’s highest accolades. Rather than revert back to dresses as she had after the Franco-Prussian War, Jane decided to keep wearing men’s attire and keep her hair short. She petitioned the French government and was granted official permission to wear pants. (See the world’s oldest dress.)

The couple spent many of their remaining years together travelling in Spain and North Africa. In 1912 Jane uncovered the ruins of a 12th-century mosque at Hasan, Morocco. When World War I broke out in 1914, Jane campaigned for women to take auxiliary positions in the military, freeing more men to fight.

At age 70, Marcel felt compelled to enlist, and Jane went with him to Morocco. She fell ill and returned to France. The devoted couple were separated from each other at this time of personal and national crisis. Jane died without Marcel in May 1916, at the age of 64. He survived his partner by four years and died in 1920.

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