Joaquin Phoenix, and his hats, in “Napoleon.”Credit…Aidan Monaghan/Apple Original and Columbia Pictures
When the costume designer David Crossman, who specializes in military wear, first knew he would be working on “Napoleon” (in theaters Wednesday), Ridley Scott’s epic starring Joaquin Phoenix, he had a “mini panic” about the hats. It wasn’t that he would have to be recreating Napoleon Bonaparte’s famous headgear, the kind for which collectors pay hundreds of thousands of dollars. It was that he would be doing it with certain limitations. Phoenix is vegan and doesn’t wear any animal products, which meant that Crossman couldn’t use wool felt. “Immediately, I just felt it’s going to be a problem of what to make the iconic hat out of because it’s all going to be about the hat,” Crossman said in a video call.
Luckily they found a solution: a fabric constructed from tree bark originating in Uganda, which turned out to have an ideal texture for the task at hand. “I thought, ‘oh good, we’re out of trouble,’” Crossman added. “I was just so worried it was going to be some polyester synthetic thing. But what it actually gave us, as well, was a lot of lovely surface texture on the hat.”
Once Crossman overcame that hurdle, the work could begin. For research, Crossman sought out originals. He examined objects from a private collection as well as examples of real Napoleon hats in the Musée de l’Armée in Paris. Phoenix’s hats may have been built from bark cloth, but they were true to size.
Over the course of the film, Phoenix dons a series of bicorns ranging in size and opulence as he goes from upstart officer to famed emperor. There were three key versions for the character reproduced many times over, Crossman said, as well as a glorious array of hats for various generals, allies, and enemies. Here, Crossman discusses some key looks.
In the film, just before Napoleon launches his attack on British forces at Toulon in the South of France in 1793, he turns his hat sideways. Though bicorns were traditionally worn facing forward, Napoleon popularized wearing it in this way. The change comes in a little moment just before a key victory that signifies Napoleon’s evolution as well as his personal style. It was also an acting choice. “It was a Joaquin decision because he knew that it had to happen,” Crossman said.
This plain hat is the one he wears as a young, untested officer from Corsica. “It keeps him out of trouble on the streets of Paris, it’s got a little revolutionary tricolor cockade so you know what side he’s on,” Crossman said. Although some of Napoleon’s rank would have worn feathers in their hats at this time, Crossman explained that he had decided to keep it simple. “He was merging into the background, watching the Revolution unfold, looking for his opportunity,” Crossman said.
General and First Consul Hat
Perhaps the most outwardly splashy hat Napoleon has is the one he wears during the period of the movie where he is a general — a time that coincides with his meeting and wooing Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby) — as well as when he’s First Consul. Its gold brim detail is a look that echoes the Jacques-Louis David painting “Bonaparte Crossing the Alps,” which shows him astride a rearing horse.
But even with this glam headwear, Crossman wanted to signify a man at a low point. “There was this kind of mid-period where Napoleon, when he meets Joséphine [at the Survivors Ball], he was so down on his luck by then, he was just out of money, so I didn’t want to put him into an embroidered uniform for that,” Crossman said, “so he’s got a much plainer uniform, just with gold trim.” He added that he based the uniform on an etching he found. “So I suppose the most ostentatious thing about him in that is his hat, which Joaquin was determined to keep on like all the time.”
Yes, you’ll notice that Phoenix keeps his head covered often indoors. “Not for comic effect for some effect, he just liked keeping it on in certain situations inside,” Crossman said. As Napoleon became more established, his uniform got more elaborate to match the gilded nature of his hat with embroidery.
By the time Napoleon is emperor, including the crucial sequence at the Battle of Austerlitz, he wears a large, but relatively unadorned bicorn. “That’s the hat that he loved,” Crossman said. “He’d make a couple of them per year and have them refresh it. He would always have new hats sent out to him. That’s why there are so many Napoleon hats in existence today.”
Based on Crossman’s research at the museum, he found that following Napoleon’s coronation as emperor, his hats got bigger and bigger as he grew politically stronger. “I’ve seen lots of very nice Napoleon iterations, ‘Bill and Ted’ included, but I’ve never seen the hat portrayed as this big,” Crossman said, “so that was the first one we made.”
Assorted Hats Belonging to Generals and Marshals
While Napoleon’s hat stays simple in his days as emperor, the actors playing his generals and marshals, like Ben Miles as Armand-Augustin-Louis de Caulaincourt, have plumage that is either white or black depending on rank. In addition to feathers, these bicorns also have gold details.
And again, Crossman wanted to make them big. He said that normally in a production, actors and directors will request that they shrink the size of hats from their historically accurate proportions to what they think looks more appealing. But that was not the case on “Napoleon.” “I was expecting more hat issues during filming,” Crossman said, “because vanity comes in. But we didn’t encounter any of that, which was great.”