27 November 2007

Standards of Beauty:
Schonheitspflege, the Beauty Care of the Empress of Austria

By Jennifer Linforth

Ah, the horror of growing old, to feel the hand of Time laid upon one's body, to watch the skin wrinkling, to awake and fear the morning light and to know that one is no longer desirable! Life without beauty would be worthless to me.
--Elisabeth of Wittelsbach, Kaiserin von Österreich
Portraits of the most beautiful women in the world watched her from the walls. Pictures of Oriental women, the harem of the Sultana of Persia--it mattered not who, so long as the women were stunning and she could immerse herself in their elegance. Kaiserin Elisabeth commanded every member of the Austrian foreign embassy to collect them for her on their journeys. On her travels Elisabeth insisted on meeting extraordinary beauties and all her attendants had to be fair of face. Was all this an outward reflection of an inward narcissistic personality? Quite possibly. The walls of her private chambers were full length mirrors...

What lengths did some women go to in the 19th century to maintain their beauty? Many, as seen in this blog this month. What was beauty's standard? In the Victorian era one woman stood out. She was admired by women, desired by men, the envy of many, but alone in her fame...

The Kaiserin of Austria, Elisabeth (Sissi, as she was known) was easily among the most beautiful royal to have ever lived. Her chestnut hair was her crowing glory, dark and to her ankles, requiring raw egg yoke and twenty bottles of the finest brandy to cleanse. Its care was a ritual of great importance. A white cloth would cover the carpet in the Kaiserin's dressing room, and Elisabeth would sit on a low chair in the center. Her hairdresser, clad in all white, would begin the process of cleaning and brushing it. Once arranged, every stray lock would be collected from the comb and cloth then counted. The Kaiserin would become upset if too many were torn loose...

Following her hair, Elisabeth prided herself on her figure and followed extreme diets. Often an entire day's nourishment would be six glasses of milk, nothing else. Not any milk, however! It had to come from special cows--which had their own traveling expense accounts. (They went everywhere with her.) Elisabeth had a sweet tooth though one could not tell from her slender waist. Who could not adore sweets, living in Vienna, home of the finest yeast cake in the world? The Kaiserin, however, would not touch anything sweeter than water seasoned with violets.

Even her walks were extreme, lasting sometimes to ten hours (to the exhaustion of her attendants). If her feet became swollen and doctors insisted she rest, Elisabeth would ignore the medical advice and move on until she received a treatment that suited her obsessions. This pattern continued throughout her life: pushing herself to extremes until physical pain or illness stopped her only to revive herself in the way suited to her and no other.

Occasionally at night, she would wear a mask stuffed with raw meat. When strawberries were in season a paste would be made and massaged into her neck and face (a beauty regime from the Balkans.) Baths were in warm olive oil. Often she wrapped her hips in wet rags before bed thinking that would preserve her slim figure. She slept with no pillows on a hard mattress, used no perfume and forbid those around her to wear it. All her rings were worn on a chain around her neck so not to mar her hands.

Perhaps it was her loneliness that forced this love of self upon her. She made a cult of her beauty and having no equal, who else could she turn to for companionship? Elisabeth even felt her children aged her. Beauty was a constant companion. And like portraits, horses, and madness (a member of the house of Wittelsbach madness was in her blood) beauty was a fixation.

Vanity? Insanity? Loneliness? Many things can drive a person to obsessions. Who is to judge the woman who also did wondrous things for her people and Hungary? The woman who gradually became a ghost in her own lifetime, but whose heart to this day is still the pride of Austria.

The ordinary mind will deem her a vain and shallow woman, and reflect that true happiness can be found in one's children's children, but such people have not the artistic temperament which the Empress possessed
--Marie Larisch