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)
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:
- 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.
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.