Napoleon’s Grey Greatcoat (redingote)

Period : Directory / 1st Empire
Share it

The figure of Napoleon is inseparable from his famous bicorn, accompanied by his no less famous grey “redingote” (a large frockcoat commonly known as his “greatcoat”). They made him more easily recognisable in the midst of his his caparisoned staff, decked with trimmings and golden braids. In this attire, the soldiers could not mistake him for anyone else, neither were those close to the Emperor fooled. Baron Fain, attaché to the Emperor’s private office, relates “in cold or rainy weather, [the Emperor] would put on a little grey greatcoat” and that when passing near the Emperor’s bivouac, “if a soldier passed his way, it was not without at least casting a friendly glance at the grey greatcoat”. The faithful valet de chambre Marchand also recalled “the Emperor dressed in this little grey redingote which had so often had a magical effect on soldiers”. Napoleon was not the inventor of this outfit, which was already worn by infantry officers under the Ancien Régime and during the Revolution as a protection from the cold and bad weather; the originality lay in the fact that it was the Emperor himself who was wearing it! The garment’s ample cut allowed him to put it on over his uniform and thus to keep his epaulettes, which he folded back over his chest.

Napoleon’s Grey Greatcoat (redingote)
Photo (C) RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Fontainebleau) / Jean-Pierre Lagiewski

The history of these greatcoats, also called “capotes”, is fairly well-known. They were first supplied by the tailor Chevallier, who was replaced in 1812 by his colleague Lejeune. Most of them were grey, but some could be blue or green. They were most often made of “drap de Louviers” (a high-quality textile) and lined with grey silk. A number of invoices are held at the French National Archives, concerning deliveries of these “redingotes” the first of which dates back to October 1804; initially invoiced at 200 francs, the price fell to 190 francs in 1808 and by 1813 Lejeune only charged them at 160 francs (by way of comparison, at the time, a day labourer earned between 1 franc and 1.50 francs per day!) From these various documents we know that each coat required two and a half “aunes” (unit of measure) of grey cloth, i.e. nearly 3 metres, three aunes of twill for the lining (about 3.50 metres), and cotton cloth for the pockets. The deliveries followed one another according to requirements: after the one delivered in October 1804, four others were delivered in August 1805 for Emperor’s visit to the Boulogne camp, then five more at the beginning of 1809, four in 1813, including a green one which cost 180 francs, two during the Hundred Days and one last one delivered in June 1815 just before leaving for Waterloo. When the “Grand Maître de la Garde-robe” (the Grand Master of the Imperial Wardrobe), Count de Rémusat, was replaced by Count de Turenne in 1811, the deliveries were regulated; it was decided that two redingotes, one grey and one coloured, would be delivered on 1 October each year so that the set would consist of six coats, without the colour being specified; each of which was to last three years. The Russian Campaign upset this fine organisation, three were burnt but Lejeune delivered a quite outstanding one at that time because it was padded and lined with chinchilla so that the Emperor could protect himself from the cold.

What remains of all these greatcoats? According to the inventory of furniture drawn up on St Helena on 5 May 1821 by the Emperor’s valet de chambre, Louis Marchand, only “two grey redingotes and one green one” remained. Drawn by lot after the Emperor’s death, one of the two grey greatcoats went to the Grand Maréchal du Palais, Henri-Gatien Bertrand, and then passed to his daughter-in-law, the Viscountess Bertrand, who died without descendants in 1885; it was through her that it came into the imperial family’s collections and was donated to the French State in 1979 by TT.II.HH. Prince Napoleon and his sister Princess Marie-Clotilde Countess de Witt (joining the collection of the Musée de Fontainebleau, N 263); in 1836 after the death of Madame Mère the second grey greatcoat was left to the Countess Camerata, daughter of Elisa, the former Grand Duchess of Tuscany; As it does not appear in the list of works she sold in 1854 to her cousin Napoleon III, we can suppose that, being considered a relic, she had given it to him and that it was the one the Emperor gave the same year to the Musée des Souverains where it was listed under number 220; it was transferred in 1891 to the Musée d’Artillerie, which is today the French Musée de l’Armée (Inv. Ca. 16). At the time of the distribution of the estate in 1836, the green greatcoat went to the former King Joseph and was given to the State in 1979 together with the grey greatcoat (Musée de Fontainebleau).

Bernard CHEVALLIER, May 2021 (translation RY)

Date :
19th Century
Technique :
drap de Louvier, silk
Dimensions :
H = 122 cm, L = 65 cm
Place held :
Château de Fontainebleau
Photo credit :
Photo (C) RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Fontainebleau) / Jean-Pierre Lagiewski
Share it