’Sisi – Mythos and Truth. Empress Elisabeth of Austria’is the title of the exhibition opened in the Britz Palace in Neukölln, Berlin. The display is not meant to give a comprehensive summary of the life of Sisi, rather it is themed around the typical features and habits of the Empress that the public attributed to her then and now, many of which are proven here to be false beliefs.
Sisi was regarded as one of the most beautiful women of her time, therefore it was evident that a considerable part of the exhibition should be dedicated to beauty treatments, body culture, clothes and of course the numerous ways of depicting Elizabeth, including period photographs. The exhibition, born under the curatorship of Katrin Unterreiner, also reveals the truth behind the different legendary stories attached to the name of Sisi. For example, there are receipts to prove that the Empress was not fasting in order to keep her slim figure. Visitors can try out the various cosmetics that Sisi used, thanks to a Viennese pharmacy who applied the original recipes to reproduce them.
Movies made about Sisi are also on show at the Britz Palace: to mention only the most popular one, the trilogy with Romy Schneider as Sisi, which has probably contributed at least as much to the Sisi-cult as she herself did.
Besides several public and private collections from Austria, Germany and Switzerland, the Gödöllő Royal Palace has also borrowed valuable Sisi-items to the exhibition: a bust of Elizabeth from 1854 made by F. Halbig; a wooden box decorated with the Bavarian crest; and Sisi’s mirrored chest of drawers, which she used when staying in the Hungarian town. The Gödöllő Town Museum also gave a black lace stole from their collection.
One of Elisabeth's formal court mourning dresses with 19"(50cm) waistline. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Anorexia Nervosa At 5 feet 8 inches (1m72), Elisabeth was unusually tall (she topped her husband by an inch or two), yet even after a total of four pregnancies she kept her weight at almost 110 pounds (50kg) for her entire life. She achieved this through fasting and excessive exercise. Today her actions would be recognized as classic signs of the eating disorder anorexia nervosa. There are a several elements in Elisabeth's life that fit common patterns seen in anorectic patients. She was strongly attached to her parents, especially to her mother, and was still a child in search of an identity of her own when an adult role with unusual obligations and restrictions was imposed upon her. She had no control in her new life and was unable to identify herself as both the spouse of the emperor and a young mother. As a result she attempted to recreate her childhood with its lack of obligations. The only quality for which she felt herself appreciated, and over which she had control, was her physical appearance, so she started cultivating this as the primary source of her self-esteem. Obsessively achievement-oriented and almost compulsively perfectionistic in her attitudes, she became a literal slave to her own beauty and image.
In deep mourning after her daughter's death, Elisabeth refused to eat for days; a behavior that would appear in later periods of melancholy and depression. Whereas she previously had supper with the family, she now began to avoid this; and if she did eat with them, she ate quickly and very little. Whenever her weight threatened to exceed fifty kilos, a "fasting cure" or "hunger cure" would follow, which involved almost complete fasting. Meat itself often filled her with disgust, so she either had the juice of half-raw beefsteaks squeezed into a thin soup, or else adhered to a diet of milk and eggs.
Elisabeth emphasised her extreme slenderness through the practice of "tight-lacing". During the peak period of 1859-60, which coincided with Franz-Joseph's political and military defeats in Italy, her sexual withdrawal from her husband 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 16 inches in diameter. Corsets of the time were split-busk types, fastening up the front with hooks and eyes, but Elisabeth had more rigid, solid-front ones made in Paris out of leather, "like those of Parisian courtesans", probably to hold up under the stress of such strenuous lacing, "a proceeding which sometimes took quite an hour". The fact that "she only wore them for a few weeks" may indicate that even leather proved inadequate for her needs. Elisabeth's defiant flaunting of this exaggerated dimension angered her mother-in-law, who expected her to be continuously pregnant.
Although on her return to Vienna in August 1862 (after her fourth pregnancy) a lady-in-waiting reported that “she eats properly, sleeps well, and does not tight-lace anymore”, her clothing from this time until her death still measured only 18 1/2 - 19 1/2 inches at the waist, which prompted the the Prince of Hesse to describe her as “almost inhumanly slender.” She developed a horror of fat women and transmitted this attitude to her youngest daughter, who was terrified when, as a little girl, she first met Queen Victoria.
In her youth Elisabeth followed the fashions of the age, which for many years were cage-crinolined hoop skirts. But when fashion began to change, she was at the forefront of abandoning the hoop skirt for a tighter and leaner silhouette. She disliked both expensive accoutrements and the protocol that dictated constant changes of clothing, preferring simple, monochromatic riding habit-like attire. She never wore petticoats or any other "underlinen", as they added bulk, and was often literally sewn into her clothes, to bypass waistbands, creases and wrinkles and further emphasize the "wasp waist" that became her hallmark.
The Empress developed extremely rigorous, almost Spartan, exercise habits. Every castle she lived in was equipped with a gymnasium: the Knights' Hall of the Hofburg was converted into one, mats and balance beams were installed in her bedchamber so that she could practice on them each morning, and 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 50's 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. When due to gout she could no longer endure long hours in the saddle, she substituted walking, subjecting her attendants to interminable marches and hiking tours in all weather.
In the last years of her life, Elisabeth became even more restless and obsessive, weighing herself up to three times day. She regularly took steam baths to prevent weight gain; by 1894 she had wasted away to near emaciation, reaching her lowest point of 95.7 lbs (43.5kg). This is even more disturbing since some of that weight was undoubtedly due to fluid retention; at her death she was found to have suffered from starvation edema. She was tormented by hunger but if pressed to eat more, she became very tense and irritable.
There were some aberrations in Elisabeth's diet that appear to be signs of binge eating, a hallmark of bulemia, a binge/purge eating disorder that is closely assocated with anorexia nervosa. On one occasion in 1878 the Empress astonished her travelling companions when she unexpectedly visited a restaurant incognito, where she drank champagne, ate a broiled chicken, an Italian salad, and finished with a "considerable quantity of cake". She may have satisfied her urge to binge in secret on other occasions; in 1881 she purchased an English country house and had a spiral staircase built from her living room into the kitchen, so that she could access it in private.
The Cult of Beauty In addition to her draconian exercise regimes Elisabeth practised what could be called a true beauty cult, but one that was highly ascetic, solitary, and prone to bizarre, eccentric and almost mystic routines. Daily care of her abundant and extremely long hair, which in the time turned from the dark blonde of her youth to chestnut brown, took at least three hours. Her hair was so long and heavy that she often complained the weight of the elaborate double braids and pins gave her headaches. Her hairdresser, Franziska (Fanny) Feifalik, was originally a stage hairdresser at the Wiener Burgtheater; responsible for all Elisabeth's ornate hairstyles, she always accompanied her on her wanderings. Faifalek was forbidden to wear rings and required to wear white gloves; after hours of dressing, braiding and pinning up the Empress' tresses, the hairs that fell out had to be presented in a silver bowl to her reproachful Empress for inspection. When her hair was washed with special "essences" of eggs and cognac once every two weeks, all activities and obligations were cancelled for that day. Before her son's death Feifaluk was tasked with tweezing gray hairs away, but at the end of her life her hair was described as "abundant, though streaked with silver threads."
Elisabeth used these captive hours to learn languages; she spoke fluent English and French, and added modern Greek to her Hungarian studies. Her Greek tutor described the ritual:
“Hairdressing takes almost two hours, she said, and while my hair is busy, my mind stays idle. I am afraid that my mind escapes through the hair and onto the fingers of my hairdresser. Hence my headache afterwards. The Empress sat at a table which was moved to the middle of the room and covered with a white cloth. She was shrouded in a white, laced peignoir, her hair, unfastened and reaching to the floor, enfolded her entire body.”
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 produced in the court pharmacy, or prepared by a lady-in-waiting in her own apartments, to preserve it. Although one favorite, "Crème Céleste", was compounded from white wax, spermaceti, sweet almond oil and rosewater; she attached far less importance to creams and emolients, and experimented with a wide variety of facial tonics and waters from which she apparently expected more results. Elisabeth slept without a pillow on a metal bedstead, all the better to retain her upright posture, with either raw veal or crushed strawberries lining her nightly leather facial mask. She was heavily massaged and often slept with cloths soaked in either violet- or cider-vinegar above her hips, to preserve her slim waist and wrapped her neck with cloths soaked in Kummerfeld-toned washing water. 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.
Owing to poor dental care in her youth, her teeth were remarked on as being "the sole flaw in her beauty" and either malnutrition or the possible effects of bulemia caused a striking deterioration in their appearance. This, combined with the roughened skin that was the inevitable result of hours in the saddle, exposed to sun and wind, caused her to hide her face behind a small leather fan. After age 32, she did not sit for any more portraits, and would not allow any photographs of her to be taken, so that her public image of the eternal beauty was not challenged. The few pictures that were taken without her knowledge show a woman that was “graceful, but almost too slender”.
Sisi’s beauty formulas The imperial anti-aging-pioneer Elisabeth’s beauty-case also contained some rather quaint remedies, yet some are the basis for modern medical products.
by INGRID TEUFL
Strawberry cream, veal or slug slime: the range for beauty care was already substantial in the 18th and 19th century. “Many of the products used are in principle not bad for the skin”, says university professor Jolanta Schmidt, head of the cosmetic medical department at the Vienna General Hospital. The new book “Rosebud and Slug Slime” (“Rosenblüte und Schneckenschleim”) shows ingredients still reliable today, as well as bizarre quack remedies. The individual beauty formulas of the Habsburgs and also of Sisi are partially printed in the original.
And yet, even dermatologist Schmidt would keep her hands off mixing her own Crème à la Sisi. Some creams have to be stirred for twelve hours. “Who has that much time on their hands nowadays?” Instead she recommends a “care matching the individual type” made by family physician, pharmacist or chemist. However, the expert most urgently advises against certain supplementary substances like lead and mercury. They are illegal in today’s beauty products. From 1850 these heavy metals were used against pigmentary abnormality, moles and freckles, because they were attributed a desiccative effect. They are in fact toxic and, amongst other things, damage the brain.
Slug slime, which used to be a popular addition to facial creams, is also long obsolete. No effect can be confirmed by the doctor. But Sisi’s beloved strawberry cream and the fresh fruit facial mask anticipate the effects of modern fruit acid. “The high vitamin C and B ratio act antibacterially, slightly lifting and invigorating”, according to Schmidt. And: “strawberries can bind heavy metals.” Overall, Sisi placed great emphasis on natural products that were freshly prepared. Make-up, too, was completely rejected by the fair aristocrat and deemed to be an interference with nature. “That is why I do not think that she would have undergone surgery” says the dermatologist. Raw veal, which Elisabeth applied to her face during the night, is deemed by Schmidt to be “not half bad”. The high vitamin C content has an anti-inflammatory effect, the muscle protein element, keratin, acts against skin ageing. Moreover, the meat gives the skin a fresh look and neutralises harmful metabolites (free radicals).
Bathing in olive oil was supposed to make Sisi’s skin smooth. The wholesome effect is still considered beneficial today. Schmidt: “It is primarily a captor of free radicals and contains vitamins A and E which have a positive effect on skin.” Also, aluminium bathing water and powders were supposed to restrain perspiration. Schmidt confirms this. “At the department we use aluminium salts for excessive perspiration, too.”
Sisi Museum Vienna Hofburg Since 1994 the Sisi Museum has been housed in the Stephan apartments, so named after Archduke Stephan Viktor. Here numerous personal items that once belonged to Elisabeth are used to help illustrate the true personality of the frequently misunderstood Empress. The sensitively designed exhibits, created by renowned set designer Prof. Rolf Langenfass, are inspired by the monarch's poetry and illustrate how the once light-hearted young girl, Sisi, became a restless, unapproachable and melancholic woman.
The more than 300 items on display in the museum include parasols, boxes and gloves which once belonged to the anthrophobic Elisabeth, along with her beauty recipes, her death mask and the actual file used in her assassination, which is usually kept securely under lock and key. Further items include a reconstruction of the evening dress worn by 16 year old Sisi in 1854 before she left her home in Munich, and a replica of a section of her imperial railway carriage.
In 2006 the SKB bought the so-called Klauda Collection of approximately 240 items. Elisabeth's travelling medical chest, her games case, a wash set and other items from the collection now feature in the exhibition. Other objects, such as her christening robes and milk tooth, are only displayed on special occasions.
In 2009, after 5 years in service and having welcomed over 3 million visitors, the Sisi Museum was closed for renovation and partial remodelling. The display was extended to include some spectacular exhibits, including the reconstructed Hungarian coronation dress, the black coat used to cover Elisabeth after the assassination, mourning jewellery and the young Sisi on her swing.