April 20, 2007 cameron

Napoleon’s hat

Pascal from Berlin asked:

“Maybe I missed this aspect of Napoleon already mentioned in one of your episode, but if you didn’t, could talk a little bit about that distinct hat Napoleon is often shown with on pictures of him. Maybe it is a modern invention and has nothing to do with the historical figure.”

Actually, Pascal, the kind of hat Napoleon wore was fairly common with European and American military and naval officers in the 18th and 19th century and it’s called a bicorne or bicorn. It was actually based on the tricorne which was popular in the 17th century. Much like the famous “hand inside jacket” pose, Napoleon wasn’t unique, it’s just that his celebrity status, then and now, makes most of us associate him with such images.

Here’s a photo of one of Napoleon’s actual hats that he wore in 1799, the year he became a Consul.

Napoleon's hat

You can read more about the bicorn’s history here. Thanks for the question Pascal!

Comments (13)

  1. Kaboth

    I was looking through my book, Ugo Pericoli ‘1815 The Armies of Waterloo’ and observing the Bicorne’s use. As far as I can tell the French were the only armies to wear the bicorne sideways. Whether this began because of Napoleon’s influence flowing through or whether it was practiced even in the early revolutionary armies and the royalist forces earlier I’m unsure. It seems the lower ranked officers mostly war the Bicorne sideways but so too did Marshals in full dress. That said when I’ve watched films the Marshals often wear their bicorne long ways as well and I think I’ve seen even unranked soldiers wear a bicorne sideways. Generals though whether they be Major-General, Lieutenant-General or General of Division seem to wear the bicorne long ways. Perhaps because Napoleon was usually surrounded by Generals as his aide-de-camps and what not it made Napoleon’s habit of wearing the Bicorne sideways seem comparatively more unique.

    Then again perhaps there was not firm rule; soldiers just chose to wear the bicorne which ever way they liked. Its said Napoleon wore his sideways so he would stand out and be easily identifiable and also as a sign of solidarity with the lower ranks. Its also why he dressed comparatively austere particularly when compared to marshals like Murat.

  2. Tom Gullesen

    If there is anyone out there who know where I can buy a Napoleon hat. Copy of course. Or maybe a link to where I can buy it?

  3. Cameron

    No Tom, I have been looking for YEARS. However, I recently met the husband of a milliner and she was making tricorns, so I suspect she could also make a bicorn. So perhaps investigate your local milliners, especially someone with a historical bent?

  4. oldmethuselah

    I found KABOTH’s comments most illuminating with regard to the “sideways” vs “longways” question.

    We recently watched the “hornblower” bbc series, and for what it’s worth in terms of historical accuracy (for I do not know how much effort a film company would go to), it appears the lower ranks used the “sideways” style, while the upper ranks the “longways”.


  5. Captain Flunky

    Old article, but I’ll comment nonetheless. I recommend hatcrafters if you want to get a bicorne, great quality, great prices and friendly people. Don’t work for them or anything, just a satisfied customer. Here is the page with the bicornes:
    The ‘athwartships’ bicorne (side to side) was popular in the late 18th century and gave way to the fore and aft (front to back) style by the end of the period.

  6. Cameron

    Captain Flunky, what a great site! Thanks for the link – I’m going to blog it on our front page!

  7. I’d heard that in 1795 Napoleon left his hat at the Procope Restaurant in the Rue du Commerce in Paris because he couldn’t pay the bill… anyone else pick up this story?

    • christopher

      We have to wonder if this story could be true. Think about this,
      If he was just a general say, he would have had a braided hat at that time. The hat in the restaurant has no braid.
      He did tear the braid off a hat beginning the preferred style we all know so we have to assume the hat the restaurant owns came after that … when he was Emperor.
      Bearing that in mind, it seems extremely unlikely he would be dining alone in a restaurant without having the price of a meal on his person.
      In any case if in fact he did dine there, it would likely be in the company of others, staff or otherwise. So it would be safe to assume that if they did dine there he would never personally see or consider the payment of a bill.
      It makes a good story for the restaurant to stick by for good business but very very
      unlikely to be true..

  8. Jack Price

    Does anyone know what the decoration is on the left side of Napoleon’s hat? I see it in every depiction.

    Jack Price

  9. chris rattray

    Is there anyone on this site who can tell me if others officers or even civilians wore exactly the same hat as napoleon. Or was he the only one who wore this particular shape.

    I have just purchased a hat from Berlin auction house for geschichte, for 60 euros plus shipping. It is a genuine beaver hat but it has some splitting damage and is rather out of shape. It is cerainly a great age.

    I have owned several period bicornes of beaver felt. I have owned a very similar hat but it was a more compact neater and smaller one. From all picy tures I can find on the internet this corresponds exactly to most of the Originals worn by the Emperor. In the pictures it is plain to see that the hats are different in form. This is what I should imagine is fashion changes over his period of wearing them.

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