“There you sit, infamous hat!” was Prince Metternich’s famous address to the hat in a scene from Rostand’s Aiglon. This line is the opening of a remarkable monologue in which one of the emperor’s most implacable enemies expresses his hate for the hat which has become the embodiment of the emperor himself.
For most people, Napoleon and his hat are one. No symbol ever so completely represented a historical character. Fully conscious of the force of this symbolism, Bonaparte made it part of his image early on in the Consulate. He chose two military uniforms, one of the Grenadiers à pied and the other of the Chasseurs à cheval of the Garde, but the way he wore his hat was entirely his own. Whilst most of his officers wore their hats “en colonne”, that is, perpendicular to the shoulders, Napoleon wore his “en bataille”, that is, with the corns parallel to shoulders. His simple and sober outfit contrasted strongly with the officers around him, glorious in their plumed hats. It meant that he was immediately recognisable amongst his troops on the battlefield.
One of the oldest known hats is that worn by the First Consul at the Battle of Marengo and today held at the Musée de l’Armée. Up to the end of the Empire, the forms and dimensions varied a little, but the general aspect remained the same. As did his hatmaker. Indeed, so much so that Rostand’s Metternich sees irony in it: “In fact the legend comes from a hatmaker/ The real Napoleon, in the end… is Poupard!”. Poupard’s shop, with its sign, “Temple du goût” (Temple of Taste), was situated in the Palais du Tribunat (Palais-Royal), in the gallery on the side next to Rue de la Loi, at n°32. In 1808, the company became ‘Poupard et Cie’, and then in 1811, ‘Poupard et Delaunay’. Every year, he delivered four ‘French’ hats, in black ‘beaver’, decorated simply with a tricoleur cocarde slipped into a silk sheath with a button.
Napoleon always had with him a set of twelve hats. Only four were taken to St Helena. The one presented here is one of those. On the Emperor’s death, one of them was placed in his coffin. Napoleon and his “little hat” rest together for eternity.
Karine Huguenaud (tr. P.H.)
Take a look at our article on Steuben’s allegorical portrait of Napoleon as depicted in eight of his hats.