The Empress Elisabeth of Austria, known as Sisi, was one of the most famous royal celebrities of 19th-century Europe. Beautiful, affluent, and deeply unhappy, she devoted herself to an obsessive beauty regimen that stands out for its intensity and weirdness.
In 1837, Sisi was born to a noble Bavarian family who had no official court duties. Like the Stark children, she enjoyed an easy-going childhood—highly privileged, but free of the many demands of court. Her mother was ambitious, however, and tried to broker a marriage between Sisi’s older sister Helene, and Austria’s most eligible bachelor, the 23-year-old Emperor Franz Joseph. When Franz Joseph spotted the 15-year-old Sisi, though, he flatly refused to marry Helene. Franz and Sisi were married eight months later.
The marriage catapulted Sisi into a life that she was not prepared for. The Habsburg court was opulent but oppressively formal. Franz Joseph traveled frequently, leaving his shy wife isolated. Sisi clashed with her mother-in-law, Princess Sophie, who ran the court with an iron fist. When Sisi had her first three children, all daughters, she wasn’t permitted to raise them; instead, they were raised by staff, under the supervision of Princess Sophie.
As Sisi’s life became increasingly stifling, she began to pour her energy into her personal appearance. She exercised obsessively, and strictly managed her weight with fasting. To highlight her 19-inch waist, she imported special “tight-lacing” corsets from France, and frequently asked to be sewn into her clothes so they would fit without wrinkles or extra bulk.
Brushing and styling her floor-length, chestnut hair took three hours each day; Sisi would study languages while her hairdresser laboured. She avoided cosmetics, which was unusual for a woman of her station, but obsessed over skincare. She experimented continually, asking the court pharmacy to create special lotions and tonics for her.
Her most bonkers beauty treatment was her nightly face mask. Sometimes, the mask was made from crushed strawberries, held in place with a leather mask. When strawberries weren’t in season, she would line the leather mask with raw veal. (This meat-lined mask must have been infinitely more terrifying than even the creepiest sheet mask!)
Sisi knew that this devotion to her youthful figure and beauty would ultimately be a losing battle. At age 32, she stopped sitting for portraits or photographs, hoping that everyone would remember her as she was at the height of her beauty.
Sisi grew more reclusive and unhappy as the years went on, though she did make a considerable contribution to Austro-Hungarian politics. In 1898, when she was 60, the Empress was murdered by an Italian anarchist named Luigi Lucheni. Lucheni had planned to assassinate Prince Philippe, Duke of Orléans, but missed his chance. He resolved to murder the next member of royalty that he saw, so Lucheni stabbed Sisi once in the chest with a four-inch file. Although the Empress stumbled, her corsets were so tight that she didn’t notice the wound. No one realized she’d been stabbed until she collapsed and died.
Sisi inspired films, musicals, plays and novels. These stories have varied in their accuracy, but the Empress is almost always depicted a young, beautiful woman—just as she would have wished.
- Who’s your favourite figure from beauty history?
- Do you get obsessed with your appearance when things aren’t going well? (I do. That’s why I bought a fitness tracker.)
- Would you try a veal face mask?