Napoleon costumes

The emperor’s new clothes: We spoke with the costume designers behind Napoleon

An interview with Janty Yates, who’s worked on 13 Ridley Scott films, and David Crossman, whose other credits include The Batman, 1917, Rogue One and the Harry Potter films.

Ahead of the release of the epic Napoleon, Cult MTL had an opportunity to chat with two of the lead costume designers on the film. Janty Yates is a long-time Ridley Scott collaborator, having worked with the filmmaker since Gladiator (2000), a film she won an Oscar for. Her career is illustrious and diverse. She’s collaborated with Scott on 13 films, including House of Gucci, Prometheus and The Martian. Among her other notable credits, she was the costume designer for Michael Mann’s cult classic Miami Vice.

We also spoke with David Crossman, who worked on the military costumes for the film. His other notable credits include The Batman, 1917, Rogue One and most of the Harry Potter films.

Both designers spoke via Zoom about what it’s like working with Ridley Scott and bringing Napoleon and his world to life. 

Napoleon movie Ridley Scott
Vanessa Kirby and Joaquin Phoenix in Napoleon

Justine Smith: You’ve been working with Ridley Scott for a long time. This is an incredibly ambitious, large-scale project with many different costumes and people involved. How do you begin to work on a project like Napoleon?

Janty Yates: Research, research, research, research, research, research, and more research. You research the granny out of it, as I always say, and then you can veer off a little bit. Ridley really doesn’t really mind if you go a little bit to the left or the right. And that’s always been great. We always know what we are doing. And so, if you do wander, you know where you’re wandering — you understand the parameters. As (Ridley Scott) said recently, “It’s not a documentary.” It’s a film, and his concept of what he believes Napoleon should be doing. And so we basically had quite a free rein, but I don’t usually go mad and give them purple hats and orange breeches because you can take it too far, and it looks crazy because nobody would ever wear that.

JS: Can you give me an example within the film where you took liberties?

Janty Yates: The Chief Executioner who had a few lines and had a bit of a bigger part because we did take a lot of people’s heads off in the film, with a lot of nuns all singing. We did him in red linen, and then we made these wonderful boots that I can’t remember where we found them, but it was a reference, and they had the foot covered and a high-ish heel, but they had this big red, sort of a floral part to the top of the boot. But the boot only came to just above the ankle, too, let’s say, mid-shin. I loved those boots with a passion. We, of course, never saw them; that’s just the way. 

Another thing that was Ridley’s instigation: He wanted the ball, which was held after the prisoners had been released from jail. He wanted them all to be virtually naked. And so we had something like 30 women in totally sheer dresses with nothing on underneath and their breasts exposed. But you can’t see that. And I think that might be in Ridley’s 4.5 hour (version), the director’s cut he’s going to release later on.

JS: That ball is where we first see Josephine (Vanessa Kirby). Her clothing is hanging off her; her hair is cropped short. It says so much about her before she even speaks. Can you talk about the costuming for Josephine? 

Janty Yates: We started her off in the Empire line and very little underwear. They wore virtually nothing, just a shift. It was unbelievable because everyone had been in corsets for decades beforehand. This freedom was very sexual in its own way. We embroidered the shoes, we embroidered the bags, we embroidered the gloves. We had beautiful bonnets made and beautiful coats made. And (Vanessa Kirby) is wearing a wrap in a lot of the appearances. Sadly, I would have preferred her to have just the dresses on show, but she felt a little exposed as an actress. But she looked marvellous in everything.

napoleon costume costumes

JS: I had no idea that the Empire style was associated with sexual liberation, I suppose I’ve always associated it with the more chaste Jane Austen.

Janty Yates: We went to the Jane Austen Museum and got a lot of ideas from there. However, it would be in cotton and have just a thin ribbon around it, not embroidered gold bullion all over the bossoms the way we did it. Jane Austen may have been buttoned up but was Empire Line in shape. 

JS: The film features a large cast wearing a variety of costumes. Logistically, how do you approach such an enormous task? 

Janty Yates: We wait till casting comes through and they’re confirmed. And that was very frustrating. We were waiting, waiting, waiting. I had my wonderful cutter Jenny Alford and her team work solely on Josephine. We had another wonderful company Cosprop, who made all of (Paul) Barras’s (Tahar Rahim) outfits, Paul Rhys (who plays Talleyrand) and the King Louis XVIII (Ian McNeice). You have to pass around all the dresses at the coronation. That was immense. The coronation was huge and (we tried to) get it to look like the portrait of the coronation by (the painter) David. We had the trains made in Pakistan. Well, they were actually made in London, but they were embroidered by a family of 13 who sent us photos of them all sitting around embroidering these amazing trains. The dresses were all made by various other makers and embroidered by another embroiderer. 

You just get on with it. You have to, because otherwise they’ll be naked.

Matt Damon in The Martian

JS: You’ve worked on so many different types of projects, most recently House of Gucci, The Last Duel and now Napoleon. At what stage of the research do you get really excited? 

Janty Yates: God. The minute I get the script, I’m off! I’m all in, whether it’s House of Gucci or any of Ridley’s three space movies that we’ve done together, like The Martian. Even though I haven’t got a clue how we’re going to do it. You know? I still get terribly, terribly overexcited and Napoleon was just the same. It was just the same. It was bigger than some of his other films. But, you know, at the moment we’re filming Gladiator 2. It’s not small. Ridley doesn’t really do small that often.

Jodie Comer in The Last Duel

JS: I’d like to take the rest of our time to ask about The Last Duel, a film that unfortunately underperformed at the box office but is one of my favourite Ridley Scott films. Can you give a little insight on costuming for the film?

Janty Yates: Get me by flattery any time! Well, we were blessed because Matt (Damon) and Ben (Affleck) had written the script. I’d worked with Matt before, and I knew he was playing an unpleasant person, so I softened his colours and did him more as an upmarket farmer rather than a squire. 

Jodie (Comer), I made her a lot of (costumes). She has a very big (story) arc. A lot of linen dresses when we start out with her, going up the scale to more gorgeous as they get a little richer. 

The most fun I had was with Ben, who loved his costumes. I’d made five different outfits, we probably only see three or maybe four in the film, but they’re dripping with fur, glorious embroidery: gold on gold. It was like a Christmas tree. He had five rings on each finger and the most glorious embroidered gloves; you would never have seen them. And the most extraordinary shoes that we had made in Rome. 

Of course, the hero or villain of the piece, Adam (Driver), was a joy. He’s a clothes horse, and he’s a joy to dress. He said he didn’t like bright colours so we got all these beautiful damasks in France for him. They were red and green and green and red. And he was saying, I don’t want to look like a, well, like a Christmas tree. So we played him down, but he was a joy to work with. 

And, of course, the armour! Christ. I had two armourers who created the originals. Then, we had them all make 8 or 10 of each in urethane, and they were made by FB effects. One of my armourers made for Matt, and the other one made for Adam. They made battle armour and duel armour, which were completely different. There was a huge amount of armour in that film, and you see pauldrons going on the wrong cuirass, and you go, no, put those on the battle armour. 

We filmed mainly in France, all around France, from the Dordogne through to Lyon. Then we finished up in Ireland. Of course, COVID happened as we were literally on the charter, taking the whole crew to Ireland. I was led through the Dublin airport and said, do you want to go home now? Oh yes, please! Then everything shut down for months on end. 

napoleon costume costumes

We also spoke with David Crossman, an expert in military costuming for the film. 

JS: How do you organize yourself in a film that spans many decades and, I imagine, covers many different periods of style and fashion?  

David Crossman: You have to get to the bottom of what the film wants to do, which battles it wants to portray. And then what? How can you best make it all work financially because it’s very expensive? How can you make all of those things work across the whole period? The look of the French army changes from just after the revolution through to Napoleon’s time as consul to Napoleon’s time as emperor. Then, even the late kind of Napoleonic soldier changes again. It was a huge logistical manufacturing job. And once you’ve made all these costumes — we made almost 4,000 — because they’re so new, it’s got to go through some process of being broken down, age died down and just made to look real. If somebody says, I want to do the Battle of Austerlitz; you have to work out which part of the battle they’re going to do.

At first, we didn’t have that much time because we were going to shoot earlier in the year and then we were racing against time to try and get all these things done. With all the hand embroidery for generals and marshals and all the hats that had to be made, nothing really existed that looked any good. It was either too old to use, or it just didn’t exist in any good number, you know? And we needed 500 of this, 300 of that, you know, it’s all so it was a it was a it was a huge task really.

JS: In creating period costumes, it is more than just getting the “look” right but also understanding how it was made. How do you do that kind of research?

David Crossman: You have to try and get hold of original things to look at because no matter what you think, you’ll always learn more once you look at something real. A friend of mine, Mark Wallace, has a collection of clothes, so I went to him first, and we found things like Joaquin’s great gray riding coat, which was very close to Napoleon’s coat. We could adapt using an actual garment of the time and copying that. We used a lot of the shapes that we found there. We used them for mass production. So we took all those patterns, reproduced them, and did them by the kind of hundred. If the soldier’s silhouette looks convincing to people, then you want it to look beautiful as well, like the paintings, because there are so many paintings of the time that lead your reference and research. In a way, you want it to look as romantic as those, but you also want it to have a degree of realism.

Napoleon Ridley Scott movie film review

JS: Watching the film, it’s clear that certain shots and moments are modelled after famous period paintings. Can you elaborate more on using art and paintings from the time in costuming? 

David Crossman: You’ll find people just added to paintings, you know? So, if there’s a moment of triumph at Austerlitz, you’ll probably find everyone grouped together all around Napoleon. When you look at (Jacques-Louis) David’s painting of the coronation, there are people added to the coronation afterwards, like Napoleon’s mother, who wasn’t there. That’s a well-known example of people being added to things. 

Generally, because the artists were with Napoleon all the time, like (Antoine-Jean) Gros and David, were at his side or in his kind of expeditionary party, some of the paintings are actually pretty accurate in a lot of respects. Romanticized sometimes, but you can see the decline in one artist as he becomes more disillusioned with Napoleon over the years, (as he) starts to paint gloomy paintings towards the end. By the time you get to 1810, they’re almost criticizing Napoleon for the lives lost, whereas ten years before, they’re kind of more glorious and more optimistic.

Jacques-Louis David, “The Coronation of Napoleon” 1805-07

JS: What type of leader was Napoleon?

David Crossman: He was very lucky. He was always regarded as a very lucky man. He had many lucky turns throughout his career. There were about half a dozen French generals at the time who could have done something similar, whether they would have done the same thing. But there was there were other generals who had similar talent and tactical abilities, who they thought could end up taking over France. Napoleon just got through that kind of rat race. Gradually, when the time was right, he became emperor. He was a very intelligent statesman who knew what he was doing. He probably didn’t know where it would all lead. But he definitely had that ambition and that kind of knowing when to act, I suppose, which was a big factor for him. ■

Read our review of Napoleon here. Napoleon is now playing in Montreal theatres.

Napoleon (directed by Ridley Scott)

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