“He came from nothing. He conquered everything.” The slogan for Ridley Scott’s new epic film about Napoleon leaves something out: The man who defeated the monarchies of Europe at the start of the nineteenth century got a career head start from his wife Joséphine’s fashion genius.
The story of Joséphine’s influence on Napoleon begins when she was thrown in jail in 1794, at the age of 31. During the worst violence of the French Revolution, Joséphine was arbitrarily arrested and condemned, and lived with the constant threat of death by guillotine any day. By the time she was freed, she had no money or status, and society had been turned upside down.
Undaunted, she and her best friend, Terezia Tallien, who had suffered the same trauma, made a spectacular bid for revolutionary glory. Together, they turned fashion inside out. They proclaimed the old underwear to be the new outerwear, turning their prison shifts into viable outfits, and their shorn heads into a daring new style. The two women became the world’s first self-made fashion celebrities. They tossed aside centuries of boned corsets, elaborate coiffures, brocade balloons, intricate trims, and gigantic pannier skirts. Women across continents were liberated by fluid dresses, abbreviated jackets, casual shawls—and the handbag. Yes, handbags were the inevitable consequence of those new tubular dresses. The leading fashion magazine of the moment (The Journal des dames et des modes) called it a “pockets revolution,” because the handbag replaced the tie-on pockets women had concealed in their vast petticoats.
Paris and the world were stunned. Never had women worn so little and looked so gorgeous. All of a sudden, women could move, and the world could see them move. Women tossed their trains over their arms, to reveal their ankles, and strode the boulevards of Paris in flat, laced shoes.
Joséphine and Terezia blazed across the revolutionary Paris social firmament with little concern for scandal. Wherever the meteoric pair went, crowds followed and gossip spread. The audacious young men who had soared to government, military, or financial power thanks to the Revolution buzzed around them. They took lovers at will. An awkward, sallow, provincial, minor army officer, Napoleon, was irresistibly drawn to Joséphine, attracted by her proximity to the most powerful men in France.
Napoleon fell under Joséphine’s spell. He wrote her rapturous letters about her body and its pleasures. By the time they married, she had positioned him as commander of an army. He knew, however, that his marriage altered his destiny. Both the groom and the bride changed their names when they wed. He had been Napoleone Buonaparte and became Napoléon Bonaparte. She had been Rose de Beauharnais and became Joséphine Bonaparte.
Joséphine started to spend in earnest. When she joined her new husband after he triumphed in Italy, she collected cameos. After attaching her new cameos to the center of her revolutionary headbands, she began to commission what we call the tiara. Back in Paris, her passionate affairs continued, less openly, but much gossiped about. Napoleon, away on campaign, sent her a gift of strange, astonishingly light but warm shawls. She sensed their potential and made them all the rage. A Kashmiri shawl (re-named Cashmere) became the ultimate European luxury item.
Soon, Joséphine boasted one of the great wardrobes of all time. She owned hundreds of diaphanous dresses, shawls, shoes, stockings, and skin-tight gloves, along with a cupboard full of precious gems. She wafted Bengali muslin as fine as mist around her head and shoulders, setting a trend that lasted for decades. As Napoleon rose to absolute political authority during the 1790s, the eyes of the world turned to her example. At his side, she became the ruler of European fashion.
Joséphine had a genius for combining things that no one had imagined could be worn together. Muslin and cashmere were much less obvious than billowing lace or tiered ruffles. The smooth, long lines of her silhouettes leveraged her willowy figure, small breasts, and tapered limbs. Subtle punctuation was her trademark: a drop-pearl earring, a diamond arrow on the deep blue enamel of a Breguet watch.
Then the power balance shifted in Napoleon’s favor. His military prowess had translated into popular acclaim, and he became the single Consul for Life. He demanded Joséphine relinquish her lovers. He insisted she separate from her friend Terezia. When Napoleon resolved to crown himself Emperor of France in 1804, he did crown Joséphine Empress, but on the condition that she tame her style. Napoleon chose the designer for her coronation outfits. Splendid thick gold embroidery stiffened a white satin gown and an enormous red silk velvet train. Her neck was surrounded by a veritable platter of lace.
Joséphine’s sumptuous attire certainly awed. We can still witness the magnificence of her ermine-lined train in an epic painting by Jacques-Louis David that now hangs in the Louvre Museum. Yet she kneels at his feet, weighed down by the clothing he required. (Beyonce turned that deference around by dancing in front of the painting for her 2018 “ApeShit” video.)
The end of the marriage was a story told in clothes as well. Joséphine was not providing Napoleon an heir, and his dynastic ambitions went to his head. He started to make mistakes, the first of which was to repudiate Joséphine. She wore a gorgeous all-white outfit for the annulment event and retired to a country estate with plenty of clothes closets and ladies-in-waiting who appreciated her perfect taste.
To the day she died, Joséphine dressed with style. On May 29, 1814, soon after Napoleon had been defeated by the united monarchies of Europe, she died in an array of pink ribbons she had selected that morning. Her fashion legacy survives. We get “empire style” and an “empire waist” from Joséphine.
But sadly, that “empire” word is not nearly radical enough for the style revolution Joséphine truly led. Not only was she a woman who took control of fashion history, she showed how a woman could overcome injustice to make herself into an international celebrity, from prison to an Imperial throne. Style, she taught us, can be a powerful way to assert a very modern individuality.