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This summer, I had the pleasure of working with a collection of Napoleonic memorabilia from the Shaw Stewart family.
The collection included objects that provided a unique insight into the Emperor’s career, such as a map of France, dating from 1808, and a playing card (the three of diamonds) thought to have been used by Napoleon to track enemy mobilisation. My favourite object, however, was Napoleon’s iconic black felt bicorne hat, worn throughout his campaign of 1807.
Although the firm Poupart & Co supplied Napoleon with the same model of hat throughout his reign, only a handful are known to have survived. Like all of his hats, this bicorne featured an additional felt patch, on the inside of the front brim, design to allow easier handling. It also lacked the leather lining commonly added to hats of the period, as Napoleon was allergic to the material.
While most generals of the period wore two-cornered hats, the bicorne has become firmly associated with Napoleon. His unique way of wearing it suggests the Emperor was fully aware of the potential for clothes to be a political tool: defying convention, Napoleon wore his hat sideways — its two ends over his ears — his strategy ensuring he was instantly identifiable.
As a specialist with a keen sartorial interest in material culture, I am fascinated by the strength of Napoleon’s personal branding, which led to the bicorne becoming firmly embedded in our collective image of the Emperor. Approaching our sale of the collection of Margaret Thatcher — another intuitive branding expert who used her wardrobe to endorse her authority — this hat highlights the importance of fashion and the power of symbols.
Main image at top: Imperial black felt bicorne campaign hat, circa 1806, attributed to Poupart & Co. Sold for: £386,500 on 9 July 2015
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