Why Is Napoleon’s Hand Always in His Waistcoat?: The Origins of This Distinctive Pose Explained

If the name of Napoleon Bona­parte should come up in a game of cha­rades, we all know what to do: stand up with one foot in front of the oth­er, stick a hand into our shirt, and con­sid­er the round won. Yet the recog­ni­tion of this pose as dis­tinc­tive­ly Napoleon­ic may not be as wide as we assume, or so Cole­man Lown­des dis­cov­ered in the research for the video above, “Napoleon’s Miss­ing Hand, Explained.” Asked to act out the image of Napoleon, not all of Lown­des col­leagues at Vox tried to evoke his hand in his waist­coat, opt­ing instead for grand pos­tur­ing and an approx­i­ma­tion of the (prob­a­bly apoc­ryphal) mod­est stature for which that pos­tur­ing sup­pos­ed­ly com­pen­sat­ed. Yet enough of us still pic­ture Napoleon hand-in-waist­coat that we might well won­der: how did that image take shape in the first place?

Rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the most famous states­man in all French his­to­ry, from paint­ings made in his life time to Bill and Ted’s Excel­lent Adven­ture, include count­less exam­ples of the pose. This has giv­en rise to bod­i­ly-ori­ent­ed spec­u­la­tions — a man­u­al defor­mi­ty, inter­nal organs pained by the can­cer that killed him — but the form came with his­tor­i­cal prece­dent.

“Con­ceal­ing a hand in one’s coat was a por­trai­ture cliche long before Napoleon was paint­ed that way in the ear­ly 1800s,” says Lown­des, in ref­er­ence to Jacques-Louis David’s The Emper­or Napoleon in His Study at the Tui­leries, a por­trait defin­i­tive enough to head up Napoleon’s Wikipedia entry. Nota­bles pre­vi­ous­ly depict­ed with one con­spic­u­ous­ly hid­den hand include George Wash­ing­ton, Mozart, and Fran­cis­co Pizarro.

Even ancient Greek ora­tor Aeschines “claimed that restrict­ing the move­ment of one hand was the prop­er way to speak in pub­lic.” Accord­ing to one 18th-cen­tu­ry British eti­quette guide, “keep­ing a hand in one’s coat was key to pos­tur­ing one­self with man­ly bold­ness, tem­pered with becom­ing mod­esty.” It even­tu­al­ly became com­mon enough to lose its high sta­tus, until David cap­tured Napoleon’s use of it in his mas­ter­ly pro­pa­gan­dis­tic por­trait. But the extent we think of Napoleon keep­ing a hand per­pet­u­al­ly in his waist­coat today sure­ly owes much to the many car­i­ca­tur­ists and par­o­dy artists who took up the trope, includ­ing Char­lie Chap­lin — who, after try­ing a mus­tache and bowler hat for a role, knew what it was to be turned icon­ic by a seem­ing­ly minor styl­is­tic choice.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Napoleon: The Great­est Movie Stan­ley Kubrick Nev­er Made

Napoleon’s Eng­lish Lessons: How the Mil­i­tary Leader Stud­ied Eng­lish to Escape the Bore­dom of Life in Exile

Napoleon’s Dis­as­trous Inva­sion of Rus­sia Detailed in an 1869 Data Visu­al­iza­tion: It’s Been Called “the Best Sta­tis­ti­cal Graph­ic Ever Drawn”

Napoleon’s Kin­dle: See the Minia­tur­ized Trav­el­ing Library He Took on Mil­i­tary Cam­paigns

The Face of Bill Mur­ray Adds Some Joy to Clas­sic Paint­ings

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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  • WW says:

    …or, pants did­n’t come with pock­ets big enough to put your hands in, until Lev­i’s were invent­ed!

  • Cambrinus says:

    Aeschines is men­tioned and, yes, this pose prob­a­bly goes back to the Greeks and Romans. One hand is left free for ges­tures, includ­ing point­ing. Two hands free might allow the speak­er to get car­ried away; in antiq­ui­ty, two hands raised sug­gest­ed prayer or des­per­a­tion.

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