Happy Birthday, Josephine Bonaparte!

Empress Josephine Bonaparte was born on this day, June 23, in 1763 as Marie Josephe Rose Tascher de la Pagerie on the island of Martinique! Over at my own blog I had a short general bio on Saturday, so I thought here I would concentrate on one aspect of her very complex life–that of Style Icon. And she was very stylish indeed–what else could we expect from a French/Caribbean empress? πŸ™‚ Even though her appearance was mostly said to be sort of average (average height, brown hair, hazel eyes–though some said brown and some said green, a good nose, and bad teeth) she knew how to dress to emphasize her good points and detract from her bad, and how to make herself seem graceful and elegant.

To help me out, I pulled books down off my shelves and looked up anything I could find that talked about Josephine’s clothes or fashion sense or use of cosmetics. Here’s just a few of the quotes I discovered:

In her youth as a young, aristocratic French bride in Paris:
“The forces of fashion conspired in Rose’s favor. The panniered dresses and terrifying hairstyles that had prevailed on her arrival in France were now somewhat demode. In their place came a style that suited Rose much better. The new look was captured in Vigee-Lebrun’s painting of Marie Antoinette which had caused such a sensation in the salon of 1783. It featured the Queen in a straw hat and simple white gown, reminiscent of the plain muslin dresses favored by Creole women on Martinique. Rose looked charming and felt comfortable in this new style. At last her native style was seen as an asset; at last she could feel confident in her femininity and in her burgeoning sexuality.” (Stuart, 78)

“Describing her during this time one old acquaintance wrote ‘That lady, without being precisely pretty, nevertheless was attractive because of her style, her gaiety and her good heart’.” (Stuart, 93)

“She perfected a style of her own, of notable graceful movements and gestures and a seductive walk to match her native langurous manner. With a will that would be of iron, she effected a physical transformation, too, schooling herself into a new slender body. Her arresting voice, with its slight Creole accent filleted of r’s would always be her greatest asset, low and silvery, ‘like a caress’ Napoleon would say of it” (Bruce, 27)

“(Lady-in-waiting Madame de Remusant) was struck by Rose’s charms. ‘Her figure,’ she later recalled, ‘was perfect, her limbs were supple and delicate, all her movements were easy and elegant…full of grace rather than beautiful and with an expression of indescribable beauty’.” (Bruce, 56)

The scandalous Directoire years as one of the notorious beauties known as ‘Merveiluses’:
“She had metamorphosed into a glittering butterfly who flitted with ease through this illustrious company. Both sexes found her seductive and gracious. Men admired her amber eyes, her flawless skin, the perfection of her arms, the sensual aura that radiated from her person. Women enjoyed the sweetness of her manner.” (Stuart, 199)

In Milan with her new husband Napoleon:
“Initially Josephine’s friends were a shock to Milan. Journals complained of their ‘immodest behavior ; arms, bosom, shoulders, all are uncovered. The arrangement of their hair is a scandal–sown with flowers and feathers, and the whole crowned with little military helmets from which locks of untidy hair escape. They even have the effrontery to dress in tunics revealing legs and thighs barely hidden by flesh-colored tights. Their manners match their clothes: arrogant talk, provocative looks, and meat eaten on Fridays.” (Bruce, 183)

As First Consul’s wife:
“He (Napoleon) was particularly keen to encourage the use of French silks and velvets, rather than the popular muslin, which was imported via England. The vogue for shawls was another example of the Consulate push for female propriety. Popularized by Josephine, the shawl replaced the fan as the must-have accessory of the period. It was usually handmade from cashmere, and it became an essential luxury item that could cost a fortune. One beautiful shawl that the First Consul presented to Josephine cost over 10,000 francs.” (Bruce, 269)

Coronation, December 2, 1804:
“At six o’clock Isabey had arrived to paint Josephine’s face and to oversee her robing. Her hair was transformed by her coiffeurs into a mass of shining chestnut ringlets, and a diadem of pearls interlaced with diamond leaves was perched atop. Then her ladies helped her into a long-sleeved gown of white satin, embroidered with gold and silver. Its bodice was cut in a low square on the bosom, with a small collar of lace rising from the shoulders and encircling the neck, and its full skirt and long train were embroidered with golden bees. Her necklace and earrings were carved gems set in diamonds and on her finger she wore a ring with a ruby, the symbol of joy.” (Stuart, 323)

As Empress:
(when she made her first official appearance as Empress): “That day she was particularly radiant, noted one observer. ‘She appeared in bright sunshine attired in a robe of rose-colored tulle, spangled with silver stars and cut very low according to the fashion of the day. Her headdress consisted of a great number of diamond wheat-ears, and this brilliant attire, the elegance of her bearing, the charm of her smile, the sweetness of her countenance, produced such an effect that the Empress outshone all the ladies of her suite’.” (Stuart, 316)

Her influence on Imperial style: “The result was a melange of Greek purity and European sumptuousness, mingling the neoclassical aesthetic with the revival of interest in the Middle Ages, known as the ‘troubador style.’ Hence the preference for embroidery and the raised lace collar that had become part of court dress. The grace with which Josephine wore these grand costumes belied just how uncomfortable they were; stiff and heavy.” (Stuart, 336)

(An inventory of her wardrobe in 1809 listed 49 grand court dresses, 676 dresses, 60 cashmere shawls, 496 other shawls and scarves, 413 pairs of gloves, and 200 silk stockings)

In conclusion, “As one of history’s great style icons, Josephine’s influence on the way an entire generation wanted to look, dress, and behave cannot be overstated. Her every action and nuance of appearance were followed eagerly by newspapers and journals in France and abroad. She was the high priestess of style, and fashion-conscious women the world over idolized her.” (Stuart, 335)

Today, she even has a Barbie in her image!

What do you think of Josephine’s style? (I could do without the immense gold-embroidered dresses and velvet trains, but I do love cashmere shawls!). Who would be a comparable style icon today (Princess Diana, maybe? But I can’t think of anyone more recent…)

(A few of the sources I enjoy on the life of Josephine are: Andrea Stuart’s Rose of Martinique: A Life of Napoleon’s Josephine; Evangeline Bruce’s Napoleon and Josephine: An Improbable Marriage; Frances Mossiker, Napoleon and Josephine: The Biography of a Marriage; and Carrolly Erickson’s Josephine: A Life of the Empress)

About Amanda McCabe/Laurel McKee

Writer (as Amanda McCabe, Laurel McKee, Amanda Carmack), history geek, yoga enthusiast, pet owner!
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.
0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Jane Austen
13 years ago

I like Josephine quite a bit. I am sympathetic to her and feel she got a raw deal; however, I could be wrong. I was heavily influenced by Sandra Gulland’s trilogy.

I love her clothes. I wish that they would make a comeback. (Why must we rehash the 60s, 70s and 80s? Why can’t we bring back real style?)

I saw Josephine’s jewels at an exhibit at the Victoria And Albert Museum in London. It was called Tiaras. As a side note: did you know that many of the tiaras worn by royalty could come apart and be used as separate pieces? They would become necklaces, brooches, earrings, bracelets….then you could snap it back together into a tiara again. I thought this very clever.

I believe that Michelle Obama will become our next fashion icon. There are some Hollywood stars like Sarah Jessica Parker, but I think her clothes are couture while Josephine’s were not (well maybe the train and gold, but really it was for a special occasion).

Has anyone seen the Marlon Brando movie “Desiree”? I love the costumes in that movie and actually really like the story as well….huh, I think I have to go visit the amazon.com site and see if I can purchase it. I’m in the mood to see it now.

Amanda McCabe
13 years ago

“I like Josephine quite a bit. I am sympathetic to her and feel she got a raw deal; however, I could be wrong”

I totally agree, JA! From my reading she strikes me as a very nice woman with an empathy for others and a loving nature (despite the shopping sprees and parties, LOL)

I haven’t seen “Desiree” since I was a kid and it once came on the TV at my grandmother’s house, but I remember how struck I was by the clothes. I do like summertime shopping because there are usually lots of high-waisted dresses and flat shoes to be found. πŸ™‚

And I agree Michelle Obama seems like a fashion icon for everyone (even though she’s probably a foot taller than most people!!). She wears designer stuff, but also things from everyday stores, plays with accessories and colors, and looks appropriate without being dowdy. SJP is amazing, but always wears such fashion-y, unique things she’s not really an example (same with people like Nicole Kidman)

Amanda McCabe
13 years ago

Oh, and I meant to say the gown, the shoes, and the crown all actually belonged to Josephine (the slippers are from the coronation). I love that spangled tulle dress!

Diane Gaston
13 years ago

I know of Josephine mostly because of Carolly Erikson’s biography. I remember three things most vividly about that book – her teeth, rotten from years of eating sugar cane; how it must have been for her to merely be thrust aside by Napoleon; how it must have been for him to change her name. A first name is so very personal; it is who you are. I’ve no problem with a person deciding to change their own name but Napoleon made this decision.

Regarding fashion. What a beautiful fashion period Josephine represents! But I can see the Italian’s shock. It must have seemed as if the ladies were running around in their shifts.

I have a friend who would love that Josephine doll!

13 years ago

I know so very little about her, but I’m another fan, so to speak. LOL And every time I see that Barbie doll, I wish even more I had it!! πŸ™‚


Amanda McCabe
13 years ago

“And every time I see that Barbie doll, I wish even more I had it!!”

Me too!!! I sometimes check ebay to see how much it’s going for, but it’s always about $1000. (There is also a Marie Antoinette doll and one of Elizabeth I, all of them gorgeous)

Jane Austen
13 years ago

I just googled the Marie Antoinette Barbie and she is really beautiful.

Several years ago A & E did a Napoleon and Josephine story and Isabella Rossellini played Josephine. I was excited about that, but the movie portrayed Josephine as this playgirl who seemed almost cold and calculating. I did not like it very much. I have read Napoleon and Josephine’s letters and you could tell their was real feeling there.

I think Napoleon renaming Rose Josephine was almost like a rebirth for her. As Rose she did not have the best life. Her first husband was horrible and then she spent all that time in prison during the Revolution. I always pictured her as a phoenix rising from the ashes. What was once a Rose is now a Josephine.

13 years ago

the inventory item ‘200 silk stockings’ made me chuckle. as in: really? would that be 100 pairs of stockings? or was she in the habit of walking around with only one stocking at a time, now and again? *g*

Louisa Cornell
13 years ago

I’ve always rather admired Josephine who made the best of several bad situations and several men who were completely unworthy of her.

She had grace and style and those are things that cannot be taught, not really.

Tracy Grant
13 years ago

What a wonderful post, Amanda! I’ve read quite a bit about Josephine in the course of research, including a number of her letters. She’s a fascinating woman. I love most of the clothes she wears in paintings. Shawls are incredibly practical–light, easy to carry, but warm enough for a draft room or a cool evening (they’re perfect in the San Francisco Bay area where I live :-).

Amanda McCabe
13 years ago

“the inventory item ‘200 silk stockings’ made me chuckle. as in: really? would that be 100 pairs of stockings?”

LOL! That was the translation–I assumed it meant “200 pairs” but who knows? Maybe she DID start a trend of wearing one stocking. :))

Amanda McCabe
13 years ago

“(they’re perfect in the San Francisco Bay area where I live :-).”

They’re also a godsend at conferences, when the air-conditioning blasts down in workshop rooms! πŸ™‚ I always pack several, and sometimes wrap them around myself like a blanket there. I’ll just pretend I’m Josephine.

I dug out a book I bought at the Versailles giftshop last year, a catalog from a Josephine exhibit held at Malmaison in 2007, “Soies tissees, soies brodees chez l’mperatrice Josephine.” I read French a little better than I speak it and could read a bit of the text, but mostly what I love are the beautiful photos of fabrics and gowns belonging to her. So elegant. Wish I had seen this exhibit!

Tracy Grant
13 years ago

“They’re also a godsend at conferences, when the air-conditioning blasts down in workshop rooms! πŸ™‚ I always pack several, and sometimes wrap them around myself like a blanket there. I’ll just pretend I’m Josephine.”

So true about conference air conditioning. I also use them like blankets on airplanes. Given the empire waists that are still in, I actually have some Josephine-esque dress and shawl combinations–the skirts are just a bit shorter :-).

“I read French a little better than I speak it and could read a bit of the text, but mostly what I love are the beautiful photos of fabrics and gowns belonging to her. So elegant. Wish I had seen this exhibit!”

Sounds fabulous! I can actually read French pretty well for research–way better than I speak it.

Kate Diamond
13 years ago

I agree with Jane Austen, which is always fun to say. Michelle Obama will definitely be (already is) our next big style icon.

I remember reading a snippet of one of Napolean’s letters to her. He said he was coming home and begged her to stop bathing. Apparently, he loved her “natural scent.”

Interesting, but not the kind of detail I’ll be putting in any of my own romance novels!

Ms. Lucy
13 years ago

Hi:) First things- what a great blog! I love this post on Josephine; she happens to be my favourite and I’ve got a blog dedicated to her.

I think she had a great sense of style and ‘savoir faire’.

As a fashion icon, I would say that Carla Bruni-Sarkozy would reflect Josephine’s style the most. She’s got subdued flair and is quite graceful and very chic.

If you’d like to visit my blog- I’m having a giveaway right now (up until tomorrow, when I’ll be posting winners). The giveaway: 2 Josephine books and a beautiful Josephine charm courtesy of Cupids Charm. come check it out: http://www.enchantedbyjosephine.blogspot.com

I’m glad I found this blog:)

Amanda McCabe
13 years ago

What a great blog, Lucy! I can’t believe I never came across it before, but it’s definitely going on my “regular blog visit” list. πŸ™‚

I agree that Carla Bruni has that “Josephine flare”. She always looks so elegant.

Ms. Lucy
13 years ago

Thanks Amanda- I love your blog too- I’ll follow as well:)