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History & Heritage


How Napoleon Bonaparte made Egyptian fashion en vogue in France

With the arrival of Egyptian Mamluk soldiers in France after the Egyptian campaign, their exotic style of dress was quickly glamorized in French society.

One of the most defining episodes in Egyptian history is the Mamluk period. In Arabic, the word Mamluk means “owned”. In the context of Egypt and much of the Islamic world, the Mamluks were soldiers, mainly from the Caucasus region and Eastern Europe, who served under the Abbasid, Fatimid and Ayyubid sultanates before having an independent entity under their direct control, known as the Mamluk Sultanate. This sultanate was divided into two main dynasties: the Bahriyya Mamluks of Turkic origin (1250-1382) and the Burji Mamluks of mainly Georgian and Circassian origin (1382-1517). During this period, the Mamluks retained a significant influence in Egypt, holding high office and contributing to the cultural and architectural development of the region. Despite losing power following the Ottoman conquest of Mamluk Egypt, the Mamluks remained a military regiment even during most of the period of Ottoman domination of Egypt. These Mamluks, trained in Egypt, were integrated into Napoleon’s personal regiment of chasseurs à cheval for the duration of the empire.


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Mamluks in France

When the French army evacuated Egypt, these auxiliaries, preferring exile to the repercussions of their collaboration, emigrated to France and settled in Marseille. Some of them were enrolled in the First Consul’s Mamluk squadron, then raised to the rank of the prestigious Imperial Guard. Raza Roustam, an Egyptian Mamluk originally from Tbilisi, Georgia, is one of the most notable examples of a Mamluk in Napoleon’s service. Roustam was presented to Napoleon in 1799 and became his bodyguard and valet, accompanying him on his return to France. Roustam’s role went beyond mere protection; he took part in various ceremonial functions and attended to Napoleon’s personal needs during campaigns. The spectacle of the Mamluks, in their distinctive oriental garb, marching at the head of military parades, captivated the French public. Their presence at events such as the great parade on the Place du Carrousel in 1802 showcased their exotic costumes and singular behaviour, enthralling Parisians with the novelty and grandeur of Oriental fashion. This fascination was not limited to military displays; the Mamluks also became a symbol of French imperial ambition and military prowess, particularly in their charge against the Russian forces at the Battle of Austerlitz.


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Joseph Lavallée’s 1803 ‘Lettres d’un Mameluck’ (Letters from a Mamluk) is a critique of the use of Mamluk themes in fashion and theatre for commercial purposes, although Lavallée himself benefited from this profitable trend. The letter says: “The day before my arrival, [French women] were all dressed as we were 3,000 years ago. I arrive: all of a sudden they are dressed à la Mamluke, and the bookshops no longer have enough Norden or Volney. But as these women had never seen Mamluk women, and I was the doll who was the patron saint of this new madness, there they were, dressed as men without a second thought.”

The cultural assimilation of Mamluk fashion into French society was accelerated by its adoption in civilian fashion, theatre and the arts. Entrepreneurs, captivated by the appeal of the Mamluk image, turned it into a commodity through vaudeville, novels and fashion items. Mamluk-inspired turbans, long-sleeved tunics and oriental trousers were all the rage, not only among men but also among women, who appropriated these clothing details as ornaments and accessories, thus feminising the dress of a warrior caste. This trend has spread to children’s fashion, where dressing youngsters in Mamluk costume has become a special feature of the Napoleonic era.

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Publié le 28 February 2024