Saturday, 13 January 2007

The mystery of Napoleon’s hat (Part 1)

I wouldn’t call it a fetish, perish the thought, or even an obsession, but I do find hats fascinating and often write about them, sometimes speculating on the wearers’ motives. What prompted Zoran Acimov, for example, the director of the Retezat National Park in Romania, to put this on his head?

What we have here is clearly just a personal fancy, but in other contexts spectacular hats can have great historical significance. The writer and cartoonist Nicolas Bentley well understood this:

Many reasons have been put forward to account for Napoleon’s fame, apart from those put forward by Napoleon himself. Historians, politicians, novelists and film directors never seem to tire of airing their theories about the small corporal. But I know of no theory that takes into account the importance of the Emperor’s hat.

Imagine, for instance, how different things might have been at Jena or Marengo with Napoleon in a white topper such as was fashionable at the time, the crown being rather larger at the top than at the base. Imagine the effect, especially on Josephine, of a small sugar-loaf hat surmounting that dumpy imperial figure. Imagine the Emperor at Austerlitz with the plumed casque of a French dragoon coming down well over his ears. Imagine a flat tricorne precariously balanced on that rounded pate, so that a sharp turn of the head must have left the hat facing towards the front.

The fate of nations cannot be sealed by a man whose hat causes the bystanders to grin, and Napoleon knew this.

His genius showed itself in an astonishing variety of ways. It was apparent not only in war and in diplomacy, but also in the art of good government, in his judgement of men, and still more in his judgement of moments. Above all, it was shown in his choice of a hat....

Part 2 follows...

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