Portrait of Elisabeth of Bavaria, Empress of Austria in 1865, painted by Franz Xaver Winterhalter
As soon as you see the magnificent portrait of Empress Elisabeth of Austria by Winterhalter, you get enchanted with her beauty. This portrait is one of Empress Elisabeth most iconic representation enhancing her reputation as one of the great beauties of her time and one of Winterhalter’s best known works. Her beauty is like a miracle, a natural phenomenon. Yes, she was incredibly, unbelievably beautiful. Her pride and joy was her long auburn hair. It was almost the only sign of vanity she ever displayed. She was one of the first modern women who did exercises and gymnastics to maintain her physical shape. She never looked older than thirty – ever.
Emperor Franz Joseph I was the man who made Princess Elisabeth (Sisi) an Empress. Although Elisabeth was the longest serving Empress-consort of Austria, at 44 years, she is remembered as a stunning beauty of the 19th century rather than an important political figure.
Empress Elisabeth of Austria (1864) by Franz Xaver Winterhalter
Daily care of her abundant and extremely long hair took at least three hours. A silk cloth was placed beneath her hair while it was brushed. After her hair was brushed, Elisabeth would check to see how many hairs had fallen out. If it was too many, she had a meltdown.
Her hair was so long and heavy that she often complained that the weight of the elaborate double braids and pins gave her headaches. Her hairdresser was responsible for all of Elisabeth’s ornate hairstyles, always accompanied her on her wanderings, was forbidden to wear rings and required to wear white gloves.
When her hair was washed with special “essences” of eggs and cognac every two weeks, all activities and obligations were cancelled for that day. Onions and Peruvian balsam was added to the cognac she washed her hair with.
At the end of her life her hair was described as “abundant, though streaked with silver threads.”
The “wasp waist”
The “wasp waist” became Elisabeth’s hallmark. She was proud of her 51cm (20 inches) waist. After three pregnancies in rapid succession, and her losing battle with her mother-in-law for dominance in rearing her children, she reduced her waist to 41cm (16 inches) in circumference. Elisabeth used tight-lacing rigid corsets made in Paris out of leather.
At 172cm, Elisabeth was unusually tall. Even after four pregnancies she maintained her weight at approximately 50kg for the rest of her life. Whenever her weight threatened to exceed it, a “fasting cure” or “hunger cure” would follow. She regularly took steam baths to prevent weight gain.
Throughout her life, Elisabeth was fanatical about maintaining a slim figure and was constantly dieting. Meat itself often filled her with disgust, so she either had the juice of half-raw beefsteaks squeezed into a thin soup, or pressed extract of chicken, partridge, venison and beef. For weeks she would eat nothing but eggs, oranges, and raw milk (she brought her own cows with her whenever she traveled). Breakfast was usually quite minimal and some evening meals consisted of little more than thin gravy.
She slept with hot towels around her waist, and wore a silk mask that contained raw veal. To keep her complexion soft, she would cover her cheeks with purified honey, and then a protective ointment of strawberries crushed in Vaseline. Warm olive-oil baths helped maintain the smoothness of her skin. To further preserve her skin tone, she took both a cold shower every morning (which in later years aggravated her arthritis) and an olive oil bath in the evening. Elisabeth slept without a pillow on a metal bedstead, all the better to retain her upright posture. She was heavily massaged and often slept with cloths soaked in either violet- or cider-vinegar above her hips.
Makeup and cosmetics
Unlike other women of her time, Elisabeth used little cosmetics or perfume, as she wished to showcase her “natural” beauty, but she tested countless beauty products prepared in the court pharmacy, or prepared by a lady-in-waiting in her own apartments, to preserve it. Her favorite, “Crème Céleste”, was compounded from white wax, spermaceti, sweet almond oil, and rosewater.
The empress developed extremely disciplined exercise habits. Every castle she lived in was equipped with a gymnasium. Mats and balance beams were installed in her bedchamber so that she could practice on them each morning. The imperial villa at Ischl was fitted with gigantic mirrors so that she could correct every movement and position. She took up fencing in her 50s with equal discipline. A fervent horsewoman, she rode every day for hours on end, becoming probably the world’s best, as well as best-known, female equestrian at the time. When, due to sciatica, she could no longer endure long hours in the saddle, she substituted walking and hiking tours in all weather.