HISTORICAL FASHIONISTAS: JOSEPHINE BONAPARTE

By Masha Voyles

Just a handy hint: keep an eye out for answers to bonus questions on your hunt! Buy your tickets to the Fashion Hunt at the V&A here.

The Empress Josephine—Napoleon’s wife—was a massive shopaholic, and was always getting into trouble with her hubby for overspending. On the other hand, this was somewhat unfair, considering the fact that he would then make snarky comments if a woman wore the same dress twice in front of him. It was also part of Josephine’s duty as empress to restore the French luxury industry, which had been all but destroyed during the French revolution. She neededto be a trendsetter to convince the French people that conspicuous consumption was cool again (and that it wouldn’t lead to one getting one’s head removed!) 

Safe to say, Josephine took this part of her job description extremely seriously. She often wore white, both because Napoleon would often say how much he loved her in white, and because it was a luxurious colour (imagine how difficult it would have been to keep spotless in the days before washing machines!) Her style of dress was inspired by flowing, high-waisted Roman and Greek styles, thus differentiating herself from the ‘corrupt’, flowery 18th-century rococo styles of Marie-Antoinette and the Ancien Régime. 

François Gérard portrait of Josephine at the Museum of the History of France

Take note of the high ‘Empire’ waistline in the portrait of her, and the gilded laurel-shaped embroidery at the bottom of the dress. The laurel is a symbol of triumph in Greek mythology—for example, the god Apollo is always represented wearing a laurel wreath. Might she also have been inspired by her husband Napoleon’s crown? (he’s often shown wearing a gold laurel crown in imperial portraits). 

Josephine in all her glory at the V&A

Want to learn more about Napoleon and his circle? Have a look at our blog post on the Borghese Beautyat the Louvre. It’s about Napoleon’s scandalous sister Pauline Borghese (of course posed as Venus Victrix), who was a feisty fashionista herself (when she fluttered down to keep her exiled brother company she brought her enormous wardrobe). The little corporal certainly did like trouble-making women! 

Are you signed up for the launch of our new Fashion Hunt at the V&A on Sunday 24 November? You may just have read the answers to some embedded bonus questions in this post! Tickets are limited, but can be bought here. You can also find bonus answers in our posts about Amazing Accessories (fans & their secret language!) and the Pandora Doll, the predecessor of our runway sampling (which Napoleon banned, incidentally, frightened state secrets were sewn in and exported with these dolls!

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