“Napoleon” Costume Designers Janty Yates & David Crossman on Designing for Coronations and Conquests
A hat is merely a hat unless it’s a Napoleon Bonaparte hat, in which case the detailing and contours need to possess star quality equal to the man who made it famous. Ridley Scott’s Napoleon (in theaters now) casts Joaquin Phoenix as the world-conquering French commander, co-starring Vanessa Kirby as his un-adoring wife Josephine, and a series of scene-stealing “bi-corn” hats designed by David Crossman. An expert in military history, Crossman previously worked on World War 1 epic 1917 and more recently designed Robert Pattinson’s superhero suit in The Batman. Crossman was invited to join the Napoleon team by Oscar-winning costume designer Janty Yates, who’s collaborated with Scott on all of his movies dating back to Gladiator.
Speaking from England, Yates and Crossman tell The Credits about how they conjured early 18th-century Napoleonic splendor with ingredients ranging from tree bark and costume jewelry to gold bullion.
The costumes you crafted for Napoleon go a long way in helping to define these historic characters. Janty, you’ve worked solo with Ridley Scott many times before. Why did you ask David to join you on this one?
Janty: There’s no way I could have done this film without David. He’s a military genius and researched the buggery out of it before we even had our first meeting. After that initial call, David took it upon himself to produce these amazing books of impeccable research that even had gold bullion-embossed embroidery samples — I was completely gob-smacked.
David: We had to hit the ground running and push forward with the embroidery because if we’d waited around for the final script and casting, it just wouldn’t have happened [in time]. Once we knew [the rest of the cast], we were able to hone in.
Napoleon’s costumes evolve through the course of the movie, starting with his early triumph at the Battle of Toulon. How do Napoleon’s clothes reflect his status?
David: Post Toulon, Napoleon’s nearly penniless in Paris and couldn’t afford an embroidered general’s uniform, so we actually copied from a civilian coat with a flat collar. When we see him a little bit later, he’s wearing the fully embroidered general’s costume.
Napoleon eventually crowns himself emperor of France and dresses for the occasion in a gorgeous fur cape. What inspired this cloak, and how did you fabricate it?
Janty: That scene was based entirely on the painting by [Jacques-Louis] David to the point where we counted every single person in the painting, we counted the children, and then tried to duplicate it as well as we possibly could.
How did you construct the garment?
Janty: The cloak took forever. I got quotes from clergymen embroiderers in France and Italy but they were astronomical. Just by luck, we landed on a family in Pakistan who embroidered them beautifully.
Everybody in Napoelon’s entourage looks like a million bucks.
Janty: The dresses for the ladies in waiting were all hand-embroidered with gold bullion in England. David can tell you about the military side.
David: All of Napoleon’s marshals and generals wore even dressier coats than he did, embroidered in pale blue and silver. The marshals wore embroidered capes and feathered caps. There’s actually a book about the coronation that lays out most of the costumes. You’d go bankrupt if you tried to do the entire book, and in real life, people literally did go bankrupt paying for their costumes. We wanted to fill the screen with richness and luxury.
Joaquin Phoenix is a vegan. Did that cause any complications in terms of fabric choices?
David: The hardest thing was Napoleon’s wool-felt hat. Joachim wouldn’t wear wool, so we experimented with tree bark from Uganda.
Wow, how did you make that work?
David: It’s a fibrous material that they’re able to process into big square pieces. You can make a hat from this [bark] because it will take the stiffener and the heat to form a lovely shape. It could have easily been a disaster, but when the milliner made the first bi-corn, Janty and I were so excited because the tree bark gave the hat this lovely texture. Marry that with the lovely antique braid and the beautiful cockade, and it all came together nicely.
This story pivots back and forth between battle scenes and the relationship between Napoleon and Vanessa Kirby’s Josephine, who first meets Napoleon at a “Survivors Ball” dressed in this very revealing gown.
Janty: In fact, Ridley would have liked a little bit more [skin], but there’s always a struggle between actors and directors over how much we see. [laughing]. Ridley was very keen that the “survivors” who’d just gotten out of prison would wear very few items of clothes because they didn’t care anymore; they did not give a rat’s ass. There was quite a lot of nudity at that party, topless women, breasts bared, which, of course, didn’t make the R-rated movie version but will be in Ridley’s four-and-a-half-hour director’s cut.
Napoleon marries Josephine, but later, she’s exiled to Château de Malmaison, where she’s dressed in a violet-colored cape unlike anything she’s worn before. What was your intention for this change in palette?
Janty: It’s actually the brightest color she wears. I told Ridley I wanted to keep Josephine in silver and gold and white. Then this pink, pale cerise cloak made of silk velvet comes out, but I think it works in this rather gloomy setting by the lake where she greets the baby [borne to Napoleon’s second wife, Anna]. It’s very emotional, so we wanted something with depth and warmth.
Josephine’s jewelry also seems to say something about her character.
Janty: Josephine was a complete jewelry whore. All the reports and books say she didn’t think much of Napoleon and set her cap on him for financial reasons. Josephine ran up enormous debt on this huge collection of exquisite jewelry.
Are the gold and gems real, or is Vanessa Kirby wearing costume jewelry?
Janty: Costume jewelry. It’s not the real thing because we did not want sixteen security men standing around all day every day going, “Where’s breakfast? Where’s lunch?” We’ve done that in the past, but we avoid it now when we can. I have the most wonderful in-house jeweler who created a huge amount of it, and then I have a jeweler in Rome who created the other half.
David, how did you dress Napoleon when he led his army into battle against Austria, Russia, and England?
David: Once Napoleon becomes emperor, he settles on this almost branded look of blue imperial garb as his favorite at-home costume. Then, on campaigns, he wears the famous green coat, a plain grey riding coat, and a plain black bi-corn. All very plain compared to his marshals, who were covered in medals by then, but Napoleon had done away with all the embroidered uniforms he wore in Egypt. He becomes more pared down. I am not comparing Napoleon to Stalin, but Stalin always wore this plain look, no frivolity: He’s the man in charge.
Napoleon’s army is decimated by the brutal Russian winter. How did you dress Napoleon for the cold?
David: What I found in my research is that when the French army came to Moscow, [diplomat and advisor] Caulaincourt, played by Ben Miles, found a shop with furs and velvet. He had these winter coats made for the army so they could travel back [to Paris]. Napoleon had this beautiful green velvet coat along with a fur hat, which you see briefly in the movie.
The battle sequences in Napoleon involve thousands of soldiers. Dressing them must have been a massive undertaking.
Janty: David will tell you he made just under 4,000 uniforms.
David: Plus all the civilian clothing from Janty’s end. We had a huge building storing all the costumes that would go out on trucks every day to different locations, back and forth, shipping them out to Malta.
Janty: [laughing] A logistical nightmare.
What’s next for you guys?
Janty: We’re working together again in Gladiator 2.
Fasten your seat belts.
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Featured image: Joaquin Phoenix stars as Napoleon Bonaparte in Apple Original Films and Columbia Pictures theatrical release of NAPOLEON. Photo by: Aidan Monaghan