What did Napoleon like to wear?
Even if you’re not sure what Napoleon actually looked like, you can usually identify him in pictures thanks to his hat and his coat. This is no accident. Napoleon cultivated an easily recognizable image by keeping his wardrobe simple. The three basic pieces were a modest uniform, a bicorne hat and an overcoat. Here’s more about Napoleon’s uniforms and other things Napoleon liked to wear.
Napoleon’s early uniforms
Napoleon donned his first uniform in 1785, when he graduated at age 16 from the military school in Paris and was commissioned as a second lieutenant of artillery. According to his friend Laure Junot, “on the day when he first put on his uniform, he was as vain as young men usually are on such an occasion. There was one part of his dress which had a very droll appearance; that was his boots. They were so high and wide that his little thin legs seemed buried in their amplitude.” Laure’s sister Cecile called him a “puss in boots.” (1)
Napoleon was promoted to brigadier general in 1793. In 1795 he became general of division, and, in March 1796, commander-in-chief of France’s Army of Italy. As such, he wore the uniform established by the French army regulations of January 1796. This included a single-breasted blue woollen coat with a red collar, red cuffs with white flaps, gold oak-leaf embroidery on the collar, cuffs, pockets and front and rear openings, and a red-and-white sash with gold trim. (2) This is the uniform Napoleon wore during the Italian campaign in 1796-97 and the Egyptian campaign in 1798-99. In August 1798, new regulations introduced a similar, double-breasted general’s coat, which Napoleon wore at the Battle of Marengo in 1800.
In November 1799, Napoleon became the First Consul of France through a coup d’état. The position was considered a civil, not a military one. One of the early decrees of the consulate mandated the creation of uniforms for consuls and ministers. English visitor John Lemaistre, admitted to an audience at the Tuileries Palace in March 1802, wrote:
Here, in a splendid salon, stood Bonaparte, between Cambacères, the second consul, and le Brun the third. They were all three dressed in their grand costume of scarlet velvet, richly embroidered with gold. (3)
In 1804, Napoleon was proclaimed Emperor of the French. His coronation costume, designed by Jean-Baptiste Isabey, included white silk breeches and stockings; white slippers with gold embroidery; a long white silk tunic embroidered with gold and ornamented at the hem with a gold fringe; a crimson velvet mantle, with lining, border and shoulder cape of Russian ermine, and embroidered with golden bees and interlaced olive, laurel and oak sprigs surrounding the letter N; white gold-embroidered gloves; a lace cravat; an open gold crown shaped like laurel leaves, and a sword with a gold handle, studded with diamonds, attached to a white sash worn around the waist and decorated with gold. (4)
Napoleon had another luxurious costume made for his coronation as King of Italy in 1805, this time in green. He established detailed and extravagant dress codes for his court and his army. “[H]e introduced elaborate new uniforms, using embroidery, lace, plumes, breastplates, dolmans, towering helmets, bear and tiger skins, more lavishly than the royal army ever had.” (5)
Napoleon wore elaborate clothing for banquets, receptions and ceremonial occasions, including his marriage to Marie Louise in 1810. However, for day-to-day activities, and while on his military campaigns, he preferred relatively plain clothes.
Napoleon’s favourite uniforms
In the midst of the finery around him, Napoleon stood out by dressing as a simple officer of his guard. He had two preferred outfits. One was the green and white uniform of a colonel of the chasseurs à cheval (light cavalry) of the Imperial Guard.
The coat of the chasseurs à cheval was of green cloth, lapels pointed, lining of the same cloth; collars and cuffs (pointed) red; gussets in the folds, green, piped with red; facings ornamented with hunting-horns embroidered in gold; hussar buttons bearing an eagle crowned. (6)
The other was the blue and white uniform of a colonel of the grenadiers à pied (infantry) of the Imperial Guard.
The grenadiers’ coat was of royal blue cloth; the collar blue, without piping; the lapels white, cut square, without piping; the cuffs scarlet, without piping; the flaps white, with three points; the lining scarlet, without piping, turned back, caught up and decorated with four grenades embroidered with gold on white cloth; the cut of the pocket longways, marked by an edging of scarlet; the gilt buttons bore an eagle crowned. (7)
Accounts differ as to which of the two uniforms Napoleon liked best.
Constant, the first valet of the emperor’s household, was in the best position to know, and he reported in his memoirs that most mornings he helped the emperor into his green cavalry uniform. According to Baron Fain, however, Napoleon wore his grenadier uniform…when in Paris and his cavalry uniform when traveling on campaign. Marchand and Meneval give another view, claiming that the emperor wore the cavalry uniform on weekdays and the grenadier uniform on Sundays. Evidence in the portraits of the era are just as confusing as these written reports; they depict him in either uniform whether at war or in peacetime.
Between November 1804 and June 1815, the account ledgers of Chevallier, who was the emperor’s tailor until December 1812, and Lejeune, who succeeded Chevallier, mention thirty-nine green cavalry uniforms. The ledgers also reveal that the cavalry uniforms were mostly delivered at the beginning of military campaigns, again leading to the conclusion that Napoleon chose this as his wartime attire. It is hardly surprising that he would select the cavalry uniform when he knew he was going to be spending a great deal of time on horseback and would prefer the grenadier uniform at other times. In any event, the regulations of 1811 specify that delivery of the uniforms would be alternated: grenadier uniforms on January 1 and July 1 and cavalry uniforms on April 1 and October 1. (8)
In 1815, Napoleon occasionally wore the blue and white uniform of the National Guard. At the Battle of Waterloo, he wore the chasseur uniform.
Napoleon’s favourite hat was a black felt bicorne – a two cornered hat, as opposed to a tricorne, or three-cornered one. Unlike his generals, he wore it without trim or plume. It had a simple cockade, secured by a black braid. He wore the hat sideways, with the corners parallel to his shoulders, rather than front to back.
When the Emperor went out of his salon to go to table he would have his hat on his head or under his left arm. In that case he would hand it to the prefect of the palace, who returned it to him when he went back into his salon. He often kept it on his head during the meal. If he happened to take it off he would lay it on the ground, to his right, and pick it up again when he left the table. (9)
Napoleon also wore other hats, including velvet bonnets when travelling, and a round hat with his civilian outfits. There are references to him wearing a tricorne when he was in exile.
Another piece of Napoleon’s standard campaign wardrobe was a calf-length wool overcoat, also known as a greatcoat. The armholes were large enough to fit over his uniform. Most of Napoleon’s greatcoats were gray, but he also ordered blue or green ones. For winter campaigns, he wore a longer, fur-lined, velvet greatcoat.
Napoleon’s clothes on Elba
In 1814, Napoleon was exiled to the island of Elba. Neil Campbell, the British Commissioner on the island, mentioned Napoleon’s clothes in his first impression of the fallen Emperor.
I saw before me a short, active-looking man, who was rapidly pacing the length of his apartment, like some wild animal in his cell. He was dressed in an old green uniform with gold epaulets, blue pantaloons and red top boots, unshaven, uncombed, with the fallen particles of snuff scattered profusely upon his upper lip and breast. (10)
According to Napoleon’s first valet, Louis-Joseph Marchand:
The Emperor was consistent in the dress he had adopted: a three-cornered hat, the uniform of the guard’s mounted chasseurs (that of the grenadiers was for Sundays in Paris), riding boots, or silk stockings with buckled shoes. During the first months of his stay on Elba, he wanted to wear white breeches buttoned at the bottom, with cuffed boots; finding this accouterment uncomfortable, he reverted to white cloth trousers and buckled shoes. When his boots were removed on his return, he wanted to don his shoes right away without changing socks, which could be done without inconvenience as his boots were clean inside and he had a fresh change of clothes each day. The Emperor had acquired that habit in Paris where often, returning from a ride or from hunting, he would attend a council of State or one of ministers, and did not take time to change clothes. (11)
Napoleon’s clothes on St. Helena
Following his second abdication after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Napoleon was exiled to the remote South Atlantic island of St. Helena. He wore his chasseur uniform on the British ships that conveyed him first to Plymouth Harbour (the Bellerophon) and then to St. Helena (the Northumberland). Napoleon continued to wear this uniform during his first six weeks on the island, when he was staying with the Balcombe family while his residence of Longwood was being prepared. He then abandoned it for a green hunting uniform and other garb, as described by his second valet, Louis-Étienne Saint-Denis.
When the Emperor lived at ‘The Briars’ he dressed in the uniform of the mounted chasseurs of the Guard. He had worn that costume on board of the Bellerophon and the Northumberland, with, of course, the three-cornered hat and the tricolored cockade. He stopped wearing this cockade later. Shortly after he moved into Longwood he wore a shooting coat at first, and when this, after having been turned, became really too bad, he wore in its place a civilian’s coat, green or brown, I do not recollect which. These three coats were cut on the same pattern. When he dressed he always wore the Grand Ribbon of the Legion of Honor (this ribbon was without a cross and was worn under the coat), and the star on the coat. Whether in military or civilian dress, he wore a waistcoat of piqué or white kerseymere, with little figured pockets, and short breeches of kerseymere with flap and pockets. He never wore anything but silk stockings having a crown in the corner, and gold buckles on his shoes; these were round and ornamented with little roses. The knee buckles were also of bold with little designs and were somewhat longer than broad. He always wore a muslin cravat and a collar of black silk folded, which was buckled behind by a square, narrow gold buckle. In incognito he wore a green frock coat and a round hat.
When the Emperor superintended the work in his gardens he wore a hunting waistcoat and nankeen pantaloons with feet, a broad-brimmed straw hat with a narrow black ribbon, and red or green slippers on his feet. He usually had in his hand a little rose-wood billiard cue which served him both for a stick and a measure. In his room he wore a frock coat of piqué as a dressing gown, pantaloons of white fustian or swanskin with feet, and a madras handkerchief on his head. Except when he went into the gardens he dressed in this way part of the day; he was comfortable in it. If he went to walk in the gardens during the morning, which happened, to tell the truth, every day, he wore nothing else. For the first four years he dressed every day, unless he felt indisposed. (12)
When Napoleon became noticeably ill in late 1820, he stopped getting dressed.
When he wanted to go out in the carriage he kept on his pantaloons and slippers, and would put on a green frock coat instead of his dressing gown, and a round hat instead of his madras handkerchief. (13)
Napoleon died on May 5, 1821. His body was dressed for burial in the uniform of the chasseurs à cheval of the Imperial Guard. Saint-Denis wrote that “he had on his boots and spurs, with his hat on his head and his sword by his side. No piece of the costume was forgotten.” (14) The coffin, however, proved to be so short that Napoleon’s hat would only fit when placed on his thighs. This was the position in which it was found when Napoleon’s coffin was opened in 1840. (See “What happened to Napoleon’s body?”)
What happened to Napoleon’s clothes?
In Napoleon’s will, the list of effects to be given to his son included:
Six shirts; 6 handkerchiefs; 6 cravats; 6 napkins; 6 pair of silk stockings; 6 black stocks; 6 pair of under stockings; … 2 dressing-gowns; 2 pair of night drawers; 1 pair of braces; 4 pair of white kerseymore breeches and vests; 6 Madras; 6 flannel waistcoats; 6 pair of drawers; 6 pair of gaiters; … 1 gold neck-buckle; 1 pair of gold knee-buckles; 1 pair of gold shoe-buckles.
One uniform of the Chasseurs; 1 ditto of the Grenadiers; 1 ditto of the National Guard; 2 hats; 1 green-and-gray great coat; 1 blue cloak (that which I wore at Marengo); 1 sable green pelisse; 2 pair of shoes; 2 pair of botts; 2 pair of slippers; 6 belts. (15)
Napoleon also left “an embroidered mantle, vest, and small-clothes” to each of his brothers Joseph and Lucien. (16)
Since Napoleon’s son was living with his grandfather, Emperor Francis I of Austria (an enemy of Napoleon), it was not possible for him to receive the clothes before his death in 1832, at the age of 21. Instead the clothes were given to Napoleon’s mother, Letizia Bonaparte, who distributed them among Napoleon’s siblings. Most of Napoleon’s clothes that were preserved by the imperial family are in the Napoleon I Museum at the Château de Fontainebleau, including Napoleon’s only surviving grenadier uniform.
One of Napoleon’s chasseur uniforms is in the Musée de l’Armée at Les Invalides in Paris, along with Napoleon’s hat and greatcoat. Although originally green, the chasseur uniform now appears blue, due to changes in the dye over time. This change in colour also afflicts the chasseur uniform that Napoleon wore on St. Helena, which is part of the collection of the Musées de Sens. That uniform, and the bicorne hat that Napoleon wore at the Battle of Waterloo, have been expertly conserved thanks to a public appeal launched by the Fondation Napoléon. The Fondation Napoleon also has other items of Napoleon’s, including this waistcoat and trousers worn by Napoleon on St. Helena.
A number of Napoleon’s hats survive in public and private collections, although not all hats claimed as Napoleon’s can be verified as such. Napoleon’s cloak, taken from his fleeing baggage train after the Battle of Waterloo, is in Britain’s Royal Collection.
In Napoleon in America, Napoleon takes his chasseur uniform with him to New Orleans.
Thanks to Josh Provan at Adventures in Historyland for suggesting that I write about Napoleon’s clothes.
You might also enjoy:
What did Napoleon like to eat and drink?
What did Napoleon like to read?
What was Napoleon’s favourite music?
10 Interesting Facts About Napoleon Bonaparte
10 More Interesting Napoleon Facts
- Laure Junot Abrantès, Memoirs of the Duchess D’Abrantès (New York, 1832), p. 53.
- Philip Haythornthwaite, Napoleon’s Campaigns in Italy (Oxford, 1993), p. 38.
- John Gustavus Lemaistre, A Rough Sketch of Modern Paris (London, 1803), p. 159.
- Frédéric Masson, Napoleon and His Coronation, translated by Frederic Cobb (Philadelphia, 1911), p. 314.
- Philip Mansel, Dressed to Rule: Royal and Court Costume from Louis XIV to Elizabeth II, (New Haven, CT, 2005) p. 81.
- Frédéric Masson, Napoleon at Home: The Daily Life of the Emperor at the Tuileries, translated by James E. Matthew, Vol. 1 (London, 1894), p. 116.
- Ibid., p. 116.
- Colombe Samoyalt-Verlet, “The Emperor’s Wardrobe,” in Katell Le Bourhis, ed., The Age of Napoleon: Costume from Revolution to Empire, 1789-1815 (New York, 1989), p. 204.
- Louis Étienne Saint-Denis, Napoleon from the Tuileries to St. Helena, translated by Frank Hunter Potter (New York and London, 1922), p. 5.
- Neil Campbell, Napoleon at Fontainebleau and Elba (London, 1869), p. 157.
- Louis-Joseph Marchand, In Napoleon’s Shadow (San Francisco, 1998), pp. 87-88.
- Saint-Denis Napoleon from the Tuileries to St. Helena, pp. 173-174.
- Ibid., p. 254.
- Ibid., p. 280.
- William Henry Ireland, The Life of Napoleon Bonaparte, Vol. 4 (London, 1828), pp. 531-532.
- Ibid., p. 533.
20 commments on “What did Napoleon like to wear?”
Join the discussion
The Emperor was consistent in the dress he had adopted: a three-cornered hat, the uniform of the guard’s mounted chasseurs (that of the grenadiers was for Sundays in Paris), riding boots, or silk stockings with buckled shoes.
Can the clothes help to estimate his actual height?
I would think so. From documentary evidence, we know that Napoleon was 5’6” – 5’7” (168-170 cm) tall, which was slightly above average for Frenchmen of his time. My friend Margaret Rodenberg has written a good post about Napoleon’s height: http://www.mrodenberg.com/2013/10/24/how-tall-short-was-napoleon-bonaparte/.
Great post, I knew you’d be able to do it justice. His latter St. Helena clothes are very interesting, as is the distinct change in dress from the heroic general to the consul and then the distinguished emperor.
As an aside, it’s fascinating how many contemporaries described Napoleon as short.
Thanks, Josh. I really appreciate the inspiration.
It is interesting how the “short” reputation prevailed, even among contemporaries. Margaret notes in her post that Napoleon liked to surround himself with the tall imperial guardsmen, which made him appear short in comparison. Maybe that explains some of the comments.
I would have thought his poncing around in grand costumes was a sign of self-aggrandisement. But you noted that one of the early decrees of the consulate mandated the creation of uniforms for consuls and ministers, then later for his court and his army. So Napoleon spread the grandeur around!
He certainly did! Even under the consulate, the dress code eventually extended to members of the legislature, the Council of State, prefects, senators and most public officials. As Philip Mansel writes: “Dress revealed Bonaparte’s monarchical ambitions before the proclamation of the Empire.” (Dressed to Rule, p. 79)
He started as a guerrila fighter in Corsica. Need to be practical and nimble to survive. He moved fast at Waterloo when his coach was attacked by the cavalry. He also had a loyal brave coachman who held the troopers at bay to buy time, until he was left for dead in the mud.
Thanks for your comments, John. That coachman was very brave. There’s a good article here about Napoleon’s escape from Waterloo: https://weaponsandwarfare.com/2015/09/30/napoleons-escape-from-waterloo/.
Great article as usual!
Napoléon was a master in propaganda: his simple uniform + the great coat + the little hat were just a genius idea! Everybody could recognize him, even the lowest soldiers, and, he seemed very “modest” compared to his officers with their shining uniforms and feathered hats…
But I think this modest attire matched with his own tastes. He liked comfortable (his valets had to wear his hats and shoes to “break” them) and simple clothes.
When you say “He established detailed and extravagant dress codes for his court and his army”, it was an attempt to mimic the royal courts but I think it was also to support and foster the French industry of fabric, clothes, laces…At the court, the ladies were not allowed to wear English fabrics (even if they did, especially Joséphine! )
You can see here the real uniform of general of division Napoléon wore at Marengo which is represented on the Appiani’s painting but also on the famous David’s “Bonaparte franchissant le Grand Saint-Bernard”. It is noted that the uniform was tailored for a man of 1m68 (5.62, damned your imperial system!!! ;-)) ; another proof that Napoléon was not short for a man of his time…
Thank you, Marie-Noëlle. Excellent point about Napoleon’s desire to foster French industry. I gather that even when he was on St. Helena, he refused to wear English fabrics, ultimately leaving him with relatively few clothes. It’s great that the uniform he wore at Marengo appears so well-preserved by the Musée de l’Armée. The size is excellent proof of his height!
Thank you. I find this information on Napoleon to be very enlightening. Thank you for so much information. Please keep it coming. But emperor? Does that mean dictator? Please let me know. Thank you
Thanks, Brian. I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog. You raise an excellent question about whether Napoleon’s empire was a dictatorship. The short answer is: not necessarily. The Fondation Napoléon has posted a couple of good articles on this topic: “Was the Napoleonic regime a military dictatorship?” by Thierry Lentz, and “The empire. Dictatorship? Monarchy?” by Jean Tulard.
Good information! Can you tell me if any of his outfits, beyond the coronation costume and silk stockings, were made of silk? His white breeches? Or his winter greatcoat, which you indicated was ‘velvet’? Any help is appreciated!
Thanks, Robert. There are references in Frédéric Masson’s book, Napoleon at Home: The Daily Life of the Emperor at the Tuileries, to Napoleon wearing shoes and riding boots with a silk lining (p. 112), and to him wearing a “stiff stock of black silk, very high and broad, and with a flap in front”, over a muslin cravat (p. 113). Napoleon also apparently had purple silk belts (p. 114). See: https://books.google.ca/books?id=RlJBAAAAIAAJ&pg=PA111&dq#v=onepage&q&f=false.
Do you know if Napoleon wore a rabbit-skin cap underneath his bicorne hat during the freezing conditions of the winter campaigns? I have been told that this was tied under his chin and is visible in some portraits. However, I am not certain if this is true, especially when he already had a quilted silk lining for his winter hats. I have been told that the height of the crown on the winter version of the bicorne hat was taller than the summer version in order to accommodate the cap.
I’m not aware of that, Simon, though someone with more knowledge of Napoleon’s hats might enlighten us in a further comment. In addition to the lining you mention, the hats themselves were made from felted beaver, which was already quite warm.
My nephew in law says that Napoleon wore the same uniform as his generals. Judging from portraits, I can’t believe that’s true. Also, was he really 5’7″ ? I need a recommendation for a better biography!
Napoleon preferred to wear the same uniform as a colonel, so his generals were actually better dressed, Kitty. And yes, he really was 5’6″-5’7″. The myth about Napoleon being short arose because the British liked to portray him as “little Boney” (see 10 Myths about Napoleon Bonaparte). If you want an excellent biography about Napoleon, I’d recommend Philip Dwyer’s trilogy: Napoleon: The Path to Power; Citizen Emperor: Napoleon in Power; and Napoleon: Passion, Death and Resurrection.
Nice post, when I had the opportunity to be at the Musée de L’armée in 2015 one uniform stood out to me, it was very close to his general uniform shown in here, however, its embroidery was silver though, I still don’t know what rank or position that related to and the correct name of the uniform but I must say I got terribly interested in wearing that with the complete set (belt, saber, etc) … it was magnificent!
Thanks, Carlos. Glad you enjoyed the article.