How Costume Designers Janty Yates and David Crossman Brought Authenticity to ‘Napoleon’

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Photo Source: Aidan Monaghan

This emperor definitely had clothes. Napoleon Bonaparte was known as much for his bicorn hat and long coat—and short stature—as his military prowess. To make sure all the characters in Ridley Scott’s biopic about the legendary French leader looked authentic, he brought in two pros: Janty Yates and David Crossman. 

Yates first worked with the veteran director on his 2000 film “Gladiator,” which earned her an Academy Award. After 20-plus years of collaborating on projects including “The Last Duel,” “Prometheus,” and “House of Gucci,” the costume designer is comfortable styling everything from togas to Tom Ford. 

Military costume expert Crossman joined Yates to create the looks for “Napoleon”; they also partnered on Scott’s forthcoming “Gladiator 2.” Here, the two discuss how they captured the distinctive fashions of the emperor (Joaquin Phoenix) and his wife, Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby), plus the rest of European society circa the late-18th and early 19th centuries.  

You first worked together on Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 2001 World War II film “Enemy at the Gates.” How did your collaboration on “Napoleon” come about? 

Janty Yates: I adore David, and we go back to when I first met him when he worked at the costume house Bermans & Nathans. I call us more or less family—it’s as good as that. His first military film was “Saving Private Ryan”! He’s done every single one: “1917,” “War Horse”—you name it, he’s done it. He’s also an exceptionally creative designer. It’s like climbing into a warm bath, working with David. 

David Crossman: Janty called me pre-pandemic and said, “Ridley is going to do ‘Napoleon,’ and it’s going to [star] Joaquin Phoenix.” So immediately I was very interested. You’ve got to start the research very early on because there’s so much manufacturing to do. Some of [the clothing] exists in costume houses and you can rent it, but a lot of the time, it doesn’t exist in the numbers [you need]. I think the goal was to try and give [the costumes] a good level of authenticity and realism and have control over what [we did] with [them]. If you rent things, you have to be very careful with them; you can’t age them. [There are] all these factors that become another thing that holds you back.

RELATED: How to Become a Costume Designer 

JY: [David] built everything; he built 4,000 costumes. And we built [almost] everything that you see onscreen. I think [French politician] Paul [Barras, played by Tahar Rahim] had one or two [pieces] from Cosprop, but everything else was built. All the prominent actors [had costumes built], and some of them didn’t even get seen. Ridley’s director’s cut is going to be four and a half hours. 

Were there any garments from the Napoleonic era that you looked at for inspiration?

DC: I’ve got a friend, Mark Wallis, who has a collection of original clothes, and he was one of my first ports of call. I wanted our cutters to do authentic pattern cutting and get the sleeves, shoulders, and bodies right of the coats—because, at the time, the [military] fashion was pretty much a direct cousin of civilian clothing. There’s not a huge difference apart from colors, ranking, and things like that. 

We found great original riding coats that we based Napoleon’s coat on. There were wonderful britches and waistcoats and hats. There were great cocked hats, which we copied the dimensions of, and then we started making copies of those. With the Musée de l’Armée’s Napoleon hats, we copied those by the dimensions because they’ve measured; you can find all the measurements onsite for different hats [from] throughout Napoleon’s career. 

Joséphine sketchHow many gowns did you make for Joséphine?

JY: I got a couple made by Cosprop and a couple made by other places. I think about 27–28, all very, very, very detailed. That’s not counting things like nightwear, nightgowns, dressing gowns, and underwear.

For the coronation scene, you used a painting from 1807 as a reference. Why did you choose that particular image?

JY: It’s [by] Jacques-Louis David, and he documented Napoleon’s life. [The character’s] there in a lot of the film, and you only have a brief glimpse of him drawing it, but the detail was extraordinary. We analyzed [the painting] day in and day out for weeks. I had a huge poster on my wall so we could see it in detail.

Napolean costume sketchPhoenix is vegan, so I’m curious about the fabric solutions you found to recreate garments from the period without using animal products. 

DC: I explained to him that the hats were made from tree bark from Uganda, which was a great thing. Because Napoleon’s hat is so important, we found a way to avoid using wool felt. [For] everything else, the fabrics were cotton-based, like moleskin; it’s a very good costume material because it has weight and dyes well and ages well. 

Pretty much everything was vegan, and the quality of vegan leathers has increased since they [were invented] 15–20 years ago. They used to sort of fall apart in the rain, but now you can make decent boots from these materials. [For a production like] “Napoleon,” there’s a lot of fur and leather—so we tried wherever possible to use nonanimal products. 

JY: Pompei in Rome always makes all my shoes and boots. They knew about Joaquin and said, “Oh, yes, we’ve got the pleather. We’ve made [pieces] for him before.” What was genius—and I really can’t thank David enough—is he’s used tree bark before, and [Joaquin’s] tree bark hat is brilliant. [It] brings atmosphere; it’s broken down. All the hats are made by this brilliant milliner in Rome.

What was the most challenging scene? 

JY: I think the coronation, because we had all the ladies-in-waiting [costumes] made from scratch, all their jewelry made from scratch. We spent something like five weeks unpicking this huge runner that had the most beautiful embroidery on it to apply to satin suits that were made. That was probably the biggest day.

David, what was the most challenging battle scene? 

DC: I think [the Battle of] Waterloo was the hardest, because [the filming of] Waterloo just kept moving everywhere in the schedule and then it just came. So, many things were still arriving, so [costumes were] coming into the tents the night before, and it was pretty scary.

Napolean

Did anything surprise you about the fashions of the time? 

JY: I hadn’t really done anything in that period, and what I realized was that they wore no underwear. They had thrown off their corsets and hoop skirts. They adopted this very sexy under-the-bust line…throwing out all the rules and regulations that the kings had specified for all those decades, centuries before. Sadly, it only lasted 20 years, 25 years maybe, and they were back [wearing] corsets again with bustles and false bosoms. 

I’ve yet to find out why they went back into it, but…it was the most wonderful, loose, glorious time, when they’d wear a shift underneath—that would be it. Literally, the bust was hiked up by the seam underneath it, and that was it. I was fascinated by that. 

What advice would you give to an actor who is coming into the fitting room to work with a costume designer?

JY: I find the first costume fitting, no matter what period, to be the most extraordinary, eye-opening meeting for both of us. They get the hook on the character [whether] they find a stripy T-shirt or a black suit, whether it be the 1790s or 1970s. They’ve just been reading the script. They’ve no idea how the director sees them; they’ve no idea how the costume designer sees them. It’s a collaboration. You’re a bit of a pingpong ball in the middle. The director gives you your brief—and with Ridley, that’s always very creative and wonderful. I mean, I’m just the facilitator. You’ll have six rails, and you might not use four of them, but you’ve nailed it with one or two of the rails, or maybe not nailed it at all and you’ve got to go again. But it is very eye-opening for an actor, that first costume fitting.

This story originally appeared in the Jan. 25 issue of Backstage Magazine.

Napoleon Coronation Credit: Design by David Crossman, Illustrator Simon Thorpe
VK Josephine Coronation Sketch Credit: Design by Janty Yates, Illustrator Lora Heath

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