This post has been inspired by my visit to the Chateau de Malmaison, once home to Napoleon’s beloved Empress, Joséphine. The chateau is located in my boyfriend’s hometown of Rueil Malmaison (a commune just west of Paris). It is definitely worth a visit as it is rather delightful but also less imposing than the Versailles counterpart. The Chateau not only gives a lovely insight into the wife of Napoleon but also into her time.
Joséphine, the Empire, and Fashion:
Joséphine was born Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie (quite the mouthful) in the summer of 1763 to a wealthy, white Creole family. By the age of 31 the trajectory of her life had been thoroughly decided by the infamous French Revolution, which stole away her first husband (who died under the guillotine) and made her Empress of the French by her second husband- the Little Corporal, Napoleon Bonaparte.
It was no secret that Joséphine had a fine taste in fashion, and rarely stayed within the budgeted allowance that Napoleon set out for her. Her love of embroidery, muslin, and tuile caught up with her however, and Joséphine’s ever-increasing debt was notorious. It would seem that she did not learn from the downfall of Marie-Antoinette, to which opulence was a certain catalyst.
Visiting her wardrobe collection in the Chateau de Malmaison is a fascinating exploration into the mind of France’s Empress. The quality of what is on display is phenomenal when you consider the age of the pieces. The dresses are extremely detailed and show off the workmanship of her loyal couturier, LeRoy.
You will also notice that many of them are white in colour, as Napoleon stated how much he loved her in white. France’s Emperor was actually a lot more involved in the wardrobe of his wife than just supporting it financially. Although he set out strict legislation in the Civil Code about what he liked women to wear, he delighted in having women wear new fashion, and often chided any female in his presence that wore a particular outfit too many times. His aims to restore the French luxury industry, which was important to France’s economy, also played an important role in what Joséphine wore. The Empress’ image helped promote the idea that luxury was again acceptable after the Revolution, which had sullied the idea (as it had become inextricably linked to Queen Marie-Antoinette).
What becomes evident is a strong sense of the “Empire style”, which was incredibly feminine, enhancing the bust, often showing off one’s arms, and allowing free and flowing movement below the waist. The style paid homage to the classical styles of ancient Greece, which was perfectly in keeping with Napoleon’s desire for a French republic. The neoclassical style, made with French silks and often light in colour, gave a sense of purity and innocence, with the lack of corset adding a hint of sexuality as it laid a woman’s true body bare beneath her dress.
If any of you are wondering what Joséphine is up to now, she rests in the church of Rueil Malmaison. I took a photo of her beautiful tomb, upon which she kneels, a pose reminiscent of Jacques-Louis David’s painting of her coronation.