Marie von Clausewitz’s Very Political Bonnet

While working on my book for the past two years, I have tried reading every bestselling biography of a famous woman. On one hand, I wanted to study the competition (wink-wink). On the other, women’s history and writing history from women’s perspective still remains a relatively new field. When immersed in reading history from the male point of view, the female one does not come so naturally. So the easiest way to learn how to see the other side and what questions to ask, is to read works on women’s history.

Sometimes pouring over female biographies could be is a very useful tool in understanding the times your own heroin existed in. Last week I finished Kate Williams’s England’s Mistress. It is an extensive and excellent biography of Emma Hamilton, the famous courtesan, salonier, influential ambassadress, and undying love of Admiral Horatio Nelson.

One passage in this book was particularly important for me and my understanding of Marie von Clausewitz’s life. When Kate Williams described the glorious reception Horatio Nelson and Emma Hamilton received when they returned to England in late 1800, she mentioned women wearing “bonnets a lá Nelson.” The fashionable items must have resembled the shape of a crocodile, thus evoking the admiral’s glorious victory against Napoleon in the Battle of the Nile (1798).

Intuitively I knew right away how “bonnet a lá Nelson” should appear. I have continually pondered over this, until I recalled that this was indeed the very same style of bonnet that Marie wore in her only known image. A bonnet with many ruffles and prominent upper part, by all means resembling a crocodile’s muzzle.



The small fact is a big revelation for me. It means that we can now date the image.

This bonnet Marie wore continually perplexed me and that’s why I remember it so vividly.

A young woman usually wore a white bonnet during the day, in a combination with a light and loose fitting muslin dress in bright colors. If you closely study Marie’s garment in the image, it appears to be a tight black dress. In a combination with pears, this speaks for an evening outfit put on for special occasions at the court. We know indeed that Marie liked to wear similar combination because she looked good in it.

General Gebhard von Blücher, the Prussian supreme commander in 1813-14 and 1815, even gushed about Madam von Clausewitz’s black velvet dress. “General Blücher sends his regards; he was surprised to hear that I was married,” Carl wrote to Marie on 18 May 1813 from the Prussian headquarters, “and even more surprised to learn that I have married his favorite lady, who pleased him so much in a black velvet dress.”

In this stylish evening combination, a white bonnet with ruffles was clearly out of place. And until last week I had no idea why Marie would even consider sitting down for a portrait wearing it.

Now the story about “bonnet a lá  Nelson” places everything in context, and the outfit makes sense. Marie clearly wore it to demonstrate her anti-Napoleonic while simultaneously signaling her pro-British sentiments.

It should be noted that Marie’s mother, Sophie von Brühl, was the daughter of an English merchant and very proud of her origins. All of her children spoke English fluently and around 1798-1801 the Brühl family spent most of their private time within the small British expats colony in Berlin.

This suggests that Marie’s portrait was painted after 1798 (the Battle of the Nile), but most likely around 1800-01 when Nelson was enthusiastically welcomed back in Great Britain. The expats in Berlin must have heard about the latest patriotic fashion in London and consequently followed suit. Marie even went a step further and in a clear political statement posed for a portrait wearing this infamous bonnet. Indeed, Marie remained a political lady, through and through.


Kate Williams, England’s Mistress: The Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton (London:Hutchinson, 2006) 

Carl’s letter to Marie from 18 May 1813, in Karl und Marie von Clausewitz, Ein Lebensbild in Briefen und Tagebuchblätter, edited and published by Karl Linnebach (Berlin: Volksverband der Bücherfreunde Wegweiser-Verlag, 1925), 335

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