Chances are you’ve seen photos of Napoleon Bonaparte’s iconic hat, even though you might not have known whose it was. The cap is a quintessential aspect of French culture and revolution. The question is: what type of hat did Napoleon wear anyway?
Napoleon Bonaparte wore a bicorne hat featuring a red, white, and blue cockade. Napoleon and his hat are synonymous with each other and with the French Revolution. The Emperor made the two-cornered hat so famous it is now commonly referred to as the Napoleonic bicorne.
Whether or not you know anything about him, we’ve all heard our fair share of references to Napoleon in pop culture. We’ll take you through who he was, why his hat is so famous, and give you some background information on the hat’s history. Keep reading to learn more.
Who Was Napoleon?
Napoleon Bonaparte was a significant military figure in the late 18th century’s French Revolution. He led the French army in their fight against monarchy after landing increasingly higher ranked military positions.
To the French, he was an ambitious, persistent man of the people. To others, he was a nightmare.
Napoleon became a mastermind in plotting French attacks and invasions in countries like Egypt, Syria, and Israel. After successfully taking down the French Directory, his power grew substantially, and Napoleon became the most influential political figure in all of France.
Soon, this rise to the top resulted in Napoleon’s dictatorship. It didn’t last for long, though, since his army was greatly defeated in the early 19th century. This loss led to Sweden, Prussia, Austria, and Russia seizing Paris.
After Napoleon’s high-profile defeat, he abdicated the throne and was exiled to a small Mediterranean island alone. He managed to escape and return to France, making his grand return to Paris.
Of course, more battles ensued before Napoleon was once again defeated, this time by the British, in the legendary Battle of Waterloo. He was forced to step down and abdicate the throne for the second time.
Once again, Napoleon was exiled to a different remote island where he eventually died six years later, in 1821.
While Napoleon was a fierce military leader and go-getter, he maintained a generous and personal relationship with his people. He was so dedicated to his army that the Emperor learned many of his soldiers’ names and actually took in the orphaned kids of troops who had died in battle.
What Is a Bicorne Hat?
Napoleon’s use of the bicorne hat is so famous that it’s commonly known today as the Napoleonic bicorne.
The word bicorne (also spelled bicorn) means “two-cornered” or “two-horned.” This term refers to the hat’s bottom corners’ sharp angles that make up a fan-like semi-circular brim. The crown of the Napoleonic bicorne juts out, giving it a rounded look joining together at the two pinched ends.
Most people who sport the bicorne hat style it “en Colonne” (“in column”), meaning the flat bottom edge sat parallel to the shoulders. Napoleon, however, flipped the accessory around and donned it “en Bataille” (“in battle”) and had it sitting parallel to his shoulders. If the hat itself wasn’t already distinct iconography of Napoleon, the way he wore it definitely was.
The famous hat is made up of silk and felt and is black in color. Historians say that Napoleon’s hatmaker delivered four bicorne hats to him every year. All were formed from a black beaver pellet and came complete with the French cockade fastened on by a button.
Sometimes important figures uniquely craft their style so that their appearance is as iconic as they are. Napoleon Bonaparte was one of those people.
Not only is Napoleon known for his relentless drive and devotion to France, but he’s also well-remembered for his infamous bicorne hat. The hat was adorned with a cockade colored in red, blue, and white.
Revolutionary French laypeople were the first to adopt this colorful hatpin. It became a symbol of the movement and their loyalty to the country. When Napoleon added this meaningful accessory to his hat, it affirmed his allegiance to the people.
Napoleon intentionally dressed in the style of the masses, despite his access to more luxurious attire. This aided the Emperor towards the goal of his troops seeing him as one of them. His hat was the one thing that distinguished him. Although the man was a tough opponent, he was someone you wanted to have on your side.
For many troops and the general French population alike, Napoleon and his iconic hat were symbols of comfort, patriotism, and pride. The tri-colored cockade worn by Napoleon and revolutionaries alike was the first instance of France’s current red, white, and blue flag we know today.
Bicorne hats were so integral to Napoleon’s look that he always had twelve of them with him at any given. One was buried with him when he died, and others can be found on display at museums.
History of the Bicorne Hat
The bicorne hat was adapted from the tricorne that was also used as military headgear. Instead of having just two pointed edges, the tricorne hat has three.
Functional purposes originally inspired the three-cornered hat. In battle, soldiers lifted the brims of their hats in a triangular shape to direct water off of the face when it was raining.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, this aristocratic-inspired hat became popular with the masses. As wigs were getting larger and gaining traction, the tricorne overtook the previously popular low sitting hats. Wigs got the attention they deserved when a heavy, overbearing hat no longer shadowed them. Thus, the tricorne took over.
As I said, the bicorne was an adaptation of the tricorne and was, of course, made famous by Napoleon. However, even after Napoleon’s time, it remained a staple of military attire.
Bicornes maintained steady popularity up until the First World War and slowly began to fade out of circulation after that. Certain military regimes like the British, Japanese, French, and USA kept the legacy alive, but following World War II, it became nearly extinct.
The hat faded out of circulation for the general public around the early 19th century. Instead, people chose to famous the classic top hat. That doesn’t mean they’re entirely gone, though.
Where Is the Bicorne Hat Today?
These days, you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone walking down the street sporting a bicorne. In fact, most people probably don’t even know what that term means.
Certain organizations still pay tribute to Napoleon by adopting his famous attire. The Académie française (French Academy) members, École Polytechnique students, and French Military Medical School cadets all maintain bicorne hats as part of their official uniforms. Even ambassadors of certain countries still adopt the iconic hat.
All in all, you’re likely to stick out like a sore thumb if you decide to go full-on Napoleon and begin to wear one of these hats every day. It’ll probably be even harder to find an authentic hat maker who can make you an authentic one out of black beaver fur without breaking the bank.
If you want to pay homage to the French revolutionary for cosplay, as a Halloween costume, or just for fun, you can head over to Amazon and snag a Napoleon Costume Hat.
To go down in history and be recognized just from the hat you wore, you must have done some pretty huge, or worn iconic hats. For Napoleon, both are true. The man was a relentless politician and leader who spearheaded many significant battles, an entire revolution, and got exiled twice.
Napoleon and his bicorne hat are loaded with history and symbolism. For some, he was a chaotic villain, but to his people, he was an ambitious and beloved leader. Either way, his hat was a part of him, and he quite literally took it to the grave.