Friday, November 4, 2016

Napoléon's Hat

Napoléon's bicorne hat, worn at the battle of Waterloo. (Source)
So Joe (le vieil homme excentrique) posed the question yesterday -
"Can you explain why Napoleon wore such a goofy hat? What possible function could that shape have? Kind of like wearing a ball cap sideways."
Yes, I can explain that, Joe. (And David, I will be talking about l'Empereur and his times today. No humbugging, I assure you.)

The hat in the opening photo is known as a bicorne or cocked hat. It's predecessor was the tricorne, or three cornered hat, which you might know from our own Revolution.

Surrender of Lord Cornwallis by John Trumbull (Source)
Check out the hats everyone is wearing, then look at the next painting.
Bataille d'Iena. 14 octobre 1806  by Horace Vernet (Source)
Notice that the Emperor is wearing the cocked hat which everyone associates with him. Note also the other two guys on horseback, they are wearing similar hats but Napoléon's looks more like those in the previous painting. So was Napoléon old fashioned? No, check out the officer on foot in the background just to the right of the Emperor's horse. His hat looks a lot like Napoléon's doesn't it?

Now the bicorne, which means a "two cornered," could be worn in one of two ways. From side-to-side (like Napoléon and the officer on foot) or fore-and-aft, like the two guys on horses (the guy with the really fancy uniform is Marshal Joachim Murat, a brilliant cavalryman who liked to design his own uniforms, pretty non-standard, but we'll get to that momentarily).

In French the two styles were known as en ligne (side-to-side or "in line") and en colonne (in column or fore-and-aft). In the early days of the Napoleonic period the majority of the French army wore bicornes. Par exemple -


Note the number of different ways the hat is worn. Some en ligne, some en colonne, some at any old angle the wearer finds comfortable. The tricorne and its descendant the bicorne were very common in those days, it wasn't just Napoléon. Heck, check out Captain Jack Sparrow -


Classic three cornered hat! All the rage in the mid to late 18th century and early 19th century! Even Admiral Nelson (another famous sailor) had a hat similar in shape to Napoléon's.

Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson, 1758-1805
by Lemuel Francis Abbott (Source)
As to the practicality (or goofiness) of said chapeau, we have to remember that uniforms back in the day were not really intended to be all that practical. They were intended to boost the men's morale, give them a feeling of cohesiveness, and to help identify the unit they belonged to. Officers tended to dress better (fancier uniforms of a better cut and quality) so that they could be readily identified.

It would be relatively to pick Napoléon out, even from a distance, with that famous cocked hat, the gray redingote, and the obligatory white horse. At Waterloo the British noticed Napoléon reviewing his troops from horseback from quite a distance away. (One officer mentioned to Wellington that he might try a shot from one of his cannon to bring down the Corsican, Wellington was shocked that a gentleman would propose such a thing!)

In the cavalry, officers and trumpeters (the signalmen of their day) rode white horses while the men rode darker animals. You needed to be able to find your leaders in the churn and noise of battle and the officers needed to find their trumpeter in a hurry as well. ("Trumpeter, sound the recall!")

Now some officers, especially cavalry officers, loved to wear extraordinary, even outlandish looking, uniforms. If they were excellent cavalry leaders (men like Murat and Lasalle) they could get away with it. (Though Murat's concoctions tried the Emperor's patience on occasion.)

Joachim Murat
from a portrait by François Gérard (Source)
Antoine Charles Louis de Lasalle
by Antoine-Jean Gros (Source)
Practical uniforms didn't come along until later in history when weapons became more lethal than the single shot muskets and cannon of Napoléon's time. Early in World War I the French infantry were still wearing blue coats (and now red trousers!), marching in nice (impractical) formations. And being mowed down by German machine guns.

So practicality took a back seat to style, morale, and cohesiveness in Napoléon's day. Of course, then, as now, after a few days of campaigning, everyone was covered in dirt or mud. After weeks in the field everyone started to look rather tattered. There were some attempts at practicality, for instance the French infantry tended to wear rather shapeless (practical) gray greatcoats in the field. The fancy uniforms stayed under the coat, plumes and such were kept in the knapsack and the fancy hat covered with an oilcloth. After all, all that finery cost money.

French Infantry, circa 1812 (Source)
Parade dress on the left, campaign dress on the right. (The guy in white is dressed for fatigue duties. Think digging latrines, chopping wood. or just lying about the camp smoking one's pipe. The Emperor wanted to re-clothe his troops in white - which the French Army used to wear, prior to the Revolution - as opposed to the blue uniforms which came from the old French National Guard. The white uniforms were not popular with the troops. Wounds looked a lot more nasty on a white coat and the much despised Austrian "white mice" wore white. No self-respecting Frenchman would want to look like an Austrian.)

For a couple of other things about Napoléon (he was short, not, he had a stomach problem hence the hand in the coat, negative) check this out.

I hope that answers your question Joe. (And I hope that was Napoleonic enough David.)

Until next time, here's one of my favorite French Army tunes,

And yes, I love onions fried in oil.

Le Chant de l'Oignon                                    (The Song of the Onion)

J'aime l'oignon frît à l'huile,                       (I love onion fried with oil,)
J'aime l'oignon quand il est bon,               (I love the onion when it's good,)
J'aime l'oignon frît à l'huile,                       (I love onion fried with oil,)
J'aime l'oignon, j'aime l'oignon.                (I love onion, I love onion.)

Au pas camarade, au pas camarade,       (Let's charge comrades, let's charge comrades.)
Au pas, au pas, au pas.                                (Let's charge, let's charge, let's charge)
Au pas camarade, au pas camarade,       (Let's charge comrades, let's charge comrades.)
Au pas, au pas, au pas.                                (Let's charge, let's charge, let's charge)

Un seul oignon frît à l'huile,                        (One onion fried with oil,)
Un seul oignon nous change en lion,         (One onion we change into a lion,)
Un seul oignon frît à l'huile                         (One onion fried with oil,)
Un seul oignon nous change en lion.         (One onion we change into a lion,)


Mais pas d'oignons aux Autrichiens,        (But no onions for the Austrians)
Non pas d'oignons à tous ces chiens,        (No onions for all these dogs)
Mais pas d'oignons aux Autrichiens,        (But no onions for the Austrians)
Non pas d'oignons, non pas d'oignons.    (No onions, no onions)


Aimons l'oignon frît à l'huile,                    (Love the onion fried with oil.)
Aimons l'oignon car il est bon,                  (Love the onion because it's good,)
Aimons l'oignon frît à l'huile,                    (Love the onion fried with oil.)
Aimons l'oignon, aimons l'oignon            (Love the onion, love the onion.)

(refrain) (Source)


  1. I have read that the French foot was the equivalent of 13", so Napoleon's 5', made him 5'5". In Swords around the Throne, there is a reference to a Guardsman who was 6'6", which would make him just over 7 feet tall!

    The decoration on Nelson's hat was a great favorite of his. It was a gift from a Middle East potentate, I forget which one, but it was clockwork, and rotated!

    You were right about Swords Around the Throne. Since I can be bought for a buck on Alibris, everyone should have a copy.

    So that is what a color portrait of Joachim " Please don't shot me in the face " Murat looks like!

    1. The Emperor was a tad under 5'7" Anglais which was just about average height for that time period. I'm pretty sure Colonel Elting used English measurements throughout the book unless otherwise noted. I might be "mis-remembering" that. But there were some pretty tall Guardsmen.

      You picked up the book for a buck? Great value!

  2. Sarge, you are a veritable fount of information. Since I've never met you in person, I'm not sure I can confirm that you are human and not just an AI interface to Google's server farm. :-)

    1. 01010100011010000110000101101110011010110111001100100000010010100111010101110110011000010111010000100001

      Oops, sorry. What I said was "Thanks Juvat!"


  3. I knew you would not disappoint.

    I felt like this could have started like the old TV show, "You Asked For It" "A cranky man from NJ asks, why is Napoleon's hat so goofy?" Well...

    And ended like a Paul Harvey, "And now you know the rest of the story."

    Very interesting stuff, thanks.

    1. Those would have been good ideas. Wish I'd thought of that...

      Perhaps you should change your nom de plume to The (Clever) Cranky Old Man.

  4. Thank you for a most informative post.

    Paul L. Quandt

  5. Thanks for the excellent post on hats (and Napoleon.) Military uniforms of the Napoleonic period are neat.

    The role of hats and hat decorations in pre-olive drab military uniforms is not very understood these days. Much like the ear tufts and cross-combs on Roman helmets, decorations, styles of hats and stuff on them signified, in the days of black-powder smoke and horse dust, who was who and who did what.

    And that was on land. Hats and decorations on sailing warships got practically downright funky. Could be worthy of a page by itself.

    1. I need to look into the sea service's use of headgear. But as for the land warfare, you do know your stuff.

      Thanks for the idea Andrew!

  6. Uniforms are NOT designed to be comfortable... Even today... Choker whites come to mind. One advantage of the bicorn was immediate recognition of the outfit by the rosette they wore on their hats.

    1. You're absolutely right as far as dress uniforms go. Truth be told, when I was active, my BDUs were pretty comfortable. I could move in them, they handled dirt pretty well and they were reinforced in all the right spots.

      Had to make sure you got them to fit right though, and dammit don't starch them. Ruins them it does.

      I can't imagine a less comfortable uniform than full dress. But they do look good. Damn good.

    2. Worn BDUs and Flight Suits, the latter were much more comfortable.

    3. So I've been told by Big Time and The WSO. In my NATO days we had something similar, coveralls which the Germans called a "tank suit." We were authorized to wear those as part of the NBC decontamination team during exercises.

      Drove some American officers nuts, we're wearing German uniforms with American BDU caps.

      Neither fish nor fowl one might say.

      Of course, I enjoyed that. A lot.

  7. That comfort in uniforms is why admirals did what they've done to sailors.
    The dungarees were much too comfortable, particularly once they got a little salty.

    1. And that's what sailors are supposed to look like!


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