The Objects

20th Jun 1815

Source: gallica.bnf.fr, with permission of the Bibliothèque nationale de France
Carl Von Steuben, Les huit époques de Napoléon, par un peintre d'histoire (1842)

Napoleon’s Hat

Contributed by: Seán Allan

When Napoleon fled the battlefield on 18 June 1815, he left behind his campaign baggage and travelling carriage. The contents were seized upon by the Allies and many of the objects still adorn museums today. The Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin has Napoleon's hat.

Few items of clothing enjoy the same iconic status as Napoleon’s hat. At an auction in 2014 one of the last remaining examples allegedly worn by the French Emperor himself was snapped up for a mere 1.9 million Euros; and the image of Germany’s chief tormentor complete with bicorne has been so deeply etched upon the nation’s psyche that this type of hat has become synonymous with its wearer and, in German at least, is usually referred to as a ‘Napoleonshut’.

The bicorne was a vital element in the construction of Napoleon’s mythical persona. Unlike the Duke of Wellington who always wore his front to back (‘en colonne’), Napoleon wore his side-to-side in the so-called ‘athwarts’ style (‘en bataille’). Although slightly at odds with historical fact, legend has it that this fashion was unique to Napoleon. Whereas in pre-revolutionary France the embellished ‘en colonne’ bicorne was associated with the aristocratic officer class, Napoleon’s preference for the plain ‘en bataille’ style was seen as symbolising his solidarity with the ordinary rank and file and made him instantly recognisable.

Meeting Napoleon’s demand for hats was a lucrative business for the Parisian hatmaker Poupard who between 1800 and 1815 supplied him with some 170 bicornes at over 48 Francs each. Yet even in death the former Emperor was inseparable from his ‘petit chapeau’, and one of the four hats that had accompanied him into exile on the island of St. Helena was placed in his coffin.

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