Ridley Scott does not make historical films unless they are epic, and his latest — Napoleon — is as towering as its subject. The film chronicles the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte (Oscar winner Joaquin Phoenix) from military commander to Emperor of France, as well as his eventual downfall, which is mirrored in his relationship with his empress, Joséphine de Beauharnais (Vanessa Kirby).

The film was such a massive undertaking that Scott enlisted two of his regular designers, Janty Yates and David Crossman, to split up costuming duties. Napoleon marks Yates' 15th collaboration with the director and Crossman's fourth. Their mission on the film was purposefully straightforward. "Ridley was quite happy with us going by the book on this one," Yates says.

Crossman, who oversaw the creation of the film's military wardrobe, says that he and his team worked hard to ensure that the costumes felt "as authentic as possible." "You don't want it to ever look like a bunch of reenactors standing around on a field," he notes. "You want it to always look like people wearing their real clothing."

Yates, meanwhile, was in charge of civilian clothes and costumes for Kirby's Josephine, and she set out to dress her in clothes and jewelry that were as close to the real-life empress' attire as possible. "Josephine's jewelry collection still survives to this day. It's in Paris and it's fantastic," Yates reveals. "They didn't offer to lend it to me, but they nearly did!"

"We came close to having around 14 security men standing near me and Vanessa all day, every day," she recalls with a laugh. "Instead of that, we had two very good jewelers come in and make copies of all the original pieces."

At the 96th Oscars, Yates and Crossman are nominated for Best Costume Design, amongst Napoleon's three total nominations. It is Crossman's first nomination, and Yates' first since winning the Oscar in 2001 for her work on Gladiator.

In conversation with A.frame, the designers discuss the collaboration required to pull off a feat like Napoleon: Together, they were able to create thousands of costumes, including more than 4,000 uniforms, and 30 hand-sewn gowns fit for royalty. Which is to say nothing of the film's epic coronation scene.


A.frame: What were the first conversations you had with Ridley about his sartorial vision for Napoleon, and from there, what were some of the first steps you took in designing the costumes?

Janty Yates: Ridley knows by now how I style rich and "important" people, and I said to him, "I think I'd like to do Josephine in shades of white, silver and gold, and just dripping in jewelry." I wanted to keep the rest of the family around her — meaning Napoleon's mother, his three sisters, and Josephine's daughter — conversely covered in very, very light and beautiful, embroidered silks.

David Crossman: With the military uniforms, we started by getting original pieces from the time, original pieces of 1800s and 1790s clothing, and copying those. We took the patterns we found on those and we started working out the line of clothing that Napoleon would wear through 1789, 1790, 1793, and all the way to 1815. We really tried to do it so that the tailoring of his clothing mirrored civilian clothing and the fashion trends of the time by getting all the shapes and colors correct. A huge step right at the outset of pre-production was getting all the embroidery completed, because all of that was done by hand. It takes months and months and months to do that, so we had to know where we were going and who might play what part and try to get all of the coats in the film produced in time. Because none of them existed before we made them.

There were moments where reenactor clothing was actually considered for the film, and nothing against reenactors, but the problem is that their costumes aren't made for films, you know? [Laughs] They're not really meant to look real enough for a movie. With our costumes, we really had to have full control of all the colors and shapes in order to make them look as close to how they did in real life.

The film sees Napoleon dressed in a lot of the clothing that he was painted wearing, but what was it like designing his clothes in the scenes where you didn't have specific references to look at?

Crossman: We put him in a disguise when he's in Toulon and he's riding around gathering information. We tried to make him look like a peasant carpenter would have in that scene. Later, he poses as a beggar in Austerlitz, so we made that for Joaquin as well and then just put a coat on top of it. He goes to a masked ball very briefly and we dressed him up for that, too, but one of the biggest civilian pieces that we put him in was actually his green velvet Russian winter coat. In real life, they all made those themselves when they went to Moscow. They found a load of furs and fabrics hidden away in a shop there, and they made those coats before they left to return to France. Everything else was military or military-esque, though, so it was the uniform art of him and of the time that was our main reference point. Most of the time, it seemed like Napoleon was happy to stay in his military uniforms.

Even when he's trying to pass as a normal person, he doesn't ever really pull that off.

Crossman: Yes. From about 1804 or so on, he was almost like a brand. So, most of the time he wore two costumes: His blue Imperial piece and the green uniform that he wore on campaign, and then he usually coupled those with his gray coat and his bicorne. That was your on-brand Napoleon, and he stuck to that really until the end of his days.


Napoleon wears a number of very finely crafted military uniforms throughout the film. Were any of those your own invention, or were they always pulled directly from paintings or renderings of him?

Crossman: They always come from some form of reference. In this case, the only references we had were paintings or etchings. When he first became general post-Toulon, Napoleon was still penniless, which meant he couldn't afford a general's uniform. So for the scene in the survivors' ball, for instance, we put him in a blue coat with a gold braid, because I'd found one rare etching of him wearing just a braided coat. Then we made a plain version of that coat for him to wear at home. Those outfits aren't explicitly correct military uniforms; they're meant to be expressions of what he's going through financially before he rises to power and becomes a more established general after he fires his cannons at that crowd in Paris.

From that point on, he establishes himself as proper General Napoleon Bonaparte. But paintings are really your few friends on a film like this. They gave us different impressions of each period of his life. There are the more sympathetic and heroic paintings of him, and then there are also the ones that are a little more slanted against him. As a costume designer, you can look at them all and get kind of an overall impression of his journey throughout the film.

In my own research, I saw two very different paintings of his coronation. In one, he looks very imposing and frightening, and in another, he looks very regal and proper.

Crossman: There was a big statue of him that was done after his coronation actually, and he hated it. It made him feel like, "God, I've become this thing now. The people are going to turn on me," so he had it put away. I think it's at the Duke of Wellington's house now, but things like that filled him with dread. A lot of the portraits that were made of him as Emperor, he hated and had removed.

Josephine starts off as a torn-down aristocrat, rises back up, and then ends somewhere between her highest and lowest points. Her clothing really reflects her arc throughout the film. Janty, what was it like designing her clothes with that journey in mind?

Yates: Well, you've got it right. It's subtle, but it's there. She's penniless in the beginning of the film after she gets out of prison, and we actually did a big section about her time in prison, which will hopefully be in Ridley's Director's Cut. But we felt it was important to really exaggerate her greed, because she did become very greedy when she shacked up with Napoleon and got to use his money! She used it to run up a lot of debt on lots of huge jewelry. That informed a lot about how we styled her in the film. We just kept putting her in more gold and more silver throughout her rise to power, and then we downsized all of that a little in the final third of the film, when she experiences her downturn back to a kind of modesty and she moves to Château de Malmaison.

Did Vanessa have any specific input regarding her costumes?

Yates: She sadly had no real input, because we originally made them for Jodie Comer, but then she had to go and do a play [Prima Facie] — which she triumphed with, I do have to say. Vanessa did have quite strong feelings about her jewelry, though. She didn't want to use too much. She stuck mainly to a lot of necklaces and chokers, probably because they weren't too heavy [Laughs]. But she has a very lovely, almost swan-like neck, so they suited her quite well.


This isn't the first film that either of you has made with Ridley. How have your working relationships with him evolved over the years?

Yates: There's a huge amount of shorthand between Ridley and me now, which really does help. He'll say, "Remember that scene in Kingdom of Heaven?" And I'll go, "Yes, I know exactly what you mean." I know exactly what kind of cloak or costume he's referring to when he says that, which is absolutely great.

Crossman: I don't know if there's a lot of the same shorthand between us. But I do remember when I first worked with Janty on Kingdom of Heaven, I was really astonished by the way Ridley would just grab a piece of paper and do a sketch of what he wants. He'll give you a little sketch of the specific shape he wants a helmet to have and that kind of thing. I do find that to be really nice. He's very visual, so you always completely understand what he's after. He's just one of those people who communicates those ideas very well, and he tends to stick to his ideas. He's pretty consistent, so you always understand what you're doing. Hopefully, that allows you to be able to do the best version of what you're meant to. I really love it when he just doodles something and then gives it to you.

Yates: He's very collaborative.

Do you think it's his collaborative spirit that makes so many actors and crew members want to keep working with him over and over again?

Yates: It's everything. Absolutely everything. As David said, he's incredibly creative. He creates his own storyboards way before we start shooting, so you always know exactly what scene you're doing on any given day and where he's going to put the camera and shoot from. Occasionally, you'll still be worried about the weather, but even that doesn't really matter, because you already know how he's going to shoot each scene. His storyboards are legendary, and he's very fast because he always uses 8 to 10 cameras and he usually only does two or three takes. His process has gotten shorter and shorter over the years, in fact. He just works so fast.

Crossman: You also feel like you're making a real film with Ridley. There's a real energy on his sets, and the nice thing is that you always know his word is final. I've done lots of movies over the years where I've found myself going through various producers and various opinions, but with Ridley, it's Ridley's opinion and that's what counts. That's it. It's great to have that kind of single-mindedness at the front of it all. It makes you feel like you're working on a substantial, proper epic. His films have this real energy and speed to them. You're always kind of trying to keep up, and it's just terrific.

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