Fear and clothing: Hat and tales on the Orient Express
A weekly reverie on the vagaries and charms of fashion
I recently found myself travelling adjacent to Napoleon’s hat. This truly surprising object was being transported along with yours truly by the champagne house Moët & Chandon on the Orient Express as part of a series of extreme festivities to celebrate 150 years of their groundbreaking Brut Imperial vintage. Groundbreaking because champagne was sweet before the relatively modern innovation of Brut, and Imperial in honour of the self-appointed emperor whose compelling hat I was in such close proximity to.
The hat sat on a plinth in a hermetically sealed glass box in one of the beautiful art nouveau carriages. I hovered around it in a state of fascination. It was weather-worn, the mending rough with big stitches, the cockade faded. The keeper of the hat – or at least some official looking person – explained that the hat was one of the last four to be worn by Napoleon in exile on St Helena. Apparently this one had been swept off his head into the sea and stolen by some intrepid curiosity seeker. I can understand the compulsion.
This hat – its famous bicorne worn at a contrary angle to the tradition – spanning Napoleon’s shoulders was almost indivisible from Napoleon himself. His brand, so to speak. It marked him out on the battlefield so that his soldiers and presumably his enemies could pick him out of the crowd. It became shorthand for the person himself. A totemic object that embodied the spirit of the man. I am hard pressed to think of any other piece of clothing that so elides the lapse between the sign and the signifier...