Napoleon Bonaparte is arguably the most famous Frenchman and the highly anticipated film Napoleon by Ridley Scott further bolsters his celebrity, which is supported by around 60,000 books and more than 100 films that have featured him since he died in 1821.
He is second only to Jesus as the most filmed figure in cinema history. The emperor and military commander, later known by his regnal name Napoleon I, has always been a controversial figure, judged as either “an enlightened despot who laid the foundations of modern Europe” or “a megalomaniac who wrought greater misery than any man before the coming of Hitler.”
While praised for bringing order to the chaos of post-revolutionary France to lead it to its destiny as a great nation, he is criticized for his tyranny and warmongering that left three million dead, not to mention his restoration of slavery. His colonial adventures, which were justified as the French nation’s mission civilatrice of exporting the values of liberty, equality, and fraternity, may have been a noble ambition but also a source of shame.
It is nevertheless fascinating how this physically unremarkable man known as “the little corporal” reached unimaginable heights as he tried to conquer the world while at the same time trying to conquer the heart of Joséphine de Beauharnais, who was his first wife and empress. Josephine, an undisputed fashion leader in the early 19th century, proved to be the perfect partner in crafting an image of power, from the architecture and interiors of their residences to the clothes they wore, which were depicted in portraits by the leading artists of the day.
Born on the island of Corsica to a family descended from Italian nobility, Napoleon resented the monarchy and supported the French Revolution in 1789 while serving the army. Josephine’s experience of the revolution was more traumatic. After her husband, the Vicomte Alexandre de Beauharnais, was guillotined during the Reign of Terror, she was sent to prison where she lived in fear of a similar fate. Upon her release, she faced a new society that was attempting to redefine its political and cultural identity.
Josephine easily became one of the Les Merveilleuses, the new fashionable set that emerged. They were so closely followed by the press, including the leading fashion magazine, Journal des Dames et des Modes, that Josephine and her friends would often exchange letters before social functions to methodically plan their outfits.
The opulent but constricting, voluminous styles of the 1770s with embroidered silks and ruffled sleeves were eschewed for streamlined diaphanous muslin gowns inspired by ancient Greek and Roman tunics characterized by a high waistline with a fitted bodice ending just below the bust, and a loose-fitting skirt that skims the body rather than being supported by petticoats. It is now known as the Empire style, referring to the First French Empire.
It was a fashion revolution that both enthralled and scandalized, as magazines raved over the new look while doctors pleaded with trendsetters to forsake their sheer gowns for fear of catching ill. With Josephine at the forefront of these “it” girls, Napoleon could not help but be smitten upon meeting her in 1795.
In the film, she is depicted with a coiffure à la victim, a cropped style with its roots during the revolution when hair was shorn to prevent the blade of the guillotine from getting stuck. On her neck was a red ribbon, simulating where the blade would have landed—a total look that caught the eye of the military officer and made him obsessed, as passionate love letters attest. She would also be instrumental for his advancement, epitomizing the merging of the two worlds of the old aristocracy and the beau monde’s nouveau riche. He proposed by January the following year and they were wed by March.
Napoleon rose rapidly in the ranks as he embarked on military campaigns, culminating in an expedition to Egypt in 1798 and a coup in 1799 to become First Consul of the Republic. Special attention was given to his uniform, which changed accordingly as he ascended. His favorite hat, the black felt bicorne, was worn sideways as opposed to the usual front to back, distinguishing him from everyone else. The hat also became bigger as he became politically stronger.
Josephine’s style evolved as well, mirroring her husband’s activities. Upon visiting Napoleon in Italy, she started a lifelong enthusiasm for cameos, which she attached to her belts, jewelry, and headwear. She accessorized with Kashmiri and other shawls brought home from trips, making them coveted luxury items. Her English cotton muslin gowns were later replaced by Lyonnais satin brocade, reflecting strategic fashion choices that stimulated the French luxury industry and contributed to the post-revolutionary national economy.
Visual allusions to leaders of antiquity, particularly ancient Rome, established them as an influential power couple. Napoleon’s signature hand-in-waistcoat pose seen in his portraits has roots in classical statuary, denoting firm authority and leadership.
By 1804, when Napoleon crowned himself emperor and Josephine as empress, the optics were complete: Jacques-Louis David was hired to immortalize the event on a 500-square-foot canvas, architects Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine did the décor, and Jean-Baptiste Isabey designed the costumes.
The emperor wore a white satin tunic embellished with gold embroideries, a red velvet cloak with ermine lining emblazoned with his initials, golden bees and laurel leaves. The empress was in a neoclassical white satin gown with puffed sleeves decorated with florals in gold and diamonds. Traditionally, queens were not crowned directly after the king, but Napoleon wanted to signal the start of a new dynasty by invoking a historical parallel in Marie de Medici, who was the last queen to receive such treatment in 1610. Josephine’s fan-shaped lace collar also references the one worn by the previous queen at her coronation depicted in a Rubens painting.
The perfect couple on canvas was not meant to be, however. With Josephine’s failure to provide an heir, Napoleon asked for a divorce and remarried. She retired to her beloved Malmaison, a country chateau outside Paris, where she continued to receive guests and admirers. On May 29, 1814, after Napoleon had been defeated by the united monarchies of Europe, she died among an array of pink ribbons she had selected that morning, leaving behind a legacy of style that survives even after her death.