Wednesday, July 10, 2013


Sisi in the 'star dress'
A woman who grew her hair to her ankles and kept it that way all her life deserves to be remembered. Consider spending three hours every day just doing your hair. Then washing it once a fortnight in a concoction of cognac and eggs. Yes, I'd keep two sets of 27 diamond stars to wear in it, too.

The 'Sisi Legend' is big in Austria; she is a bit like a 19th century Princess Diana, though the Sisi Cult grew up after her death. She managed, with admirable eccentricity, to get through life in reasonable obscurity -- for an Empress. In the 1950s she was unearthed by Hollywood and some rather saccharine films made about her starring Romy Schneider.

She was the Empress Elizabeth (1837 - 1898), wife of Emperor Franz-Josef I of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It is sometimes remarked upon that she was a cousin of "Mad" King Ludwig of Bavaria, but her interesting life could be considered entirely reasonable too.

She was married off at 16 to Franz-Josef (another cousin), the Hapsburg Emperor of Austria, and dutifully produced several children, including a son and heir, Crown Prince Rudolf. Having fulfilled this duty, Sisi decamped to Madeira for two years, citing ill-health. She came back thoroughly blossomed - being away from the Court and husband evidently suited her -  and around that time was painted gorgeously by Franz Winterhalter. However, Sisi still hated the stuffy Court routine and her lack of freedom, and set out to wander Europe as she wished. She had a beautiful private rail salon in which she traversed here and there at great expense, more or less abandoning the raising of her children to her mother-in-law.

That hair!
But Sisi had great sadnesses too - at first she insisted on taking her two small daughters with her on her travels; but they became seriously ill on a journey and one of them, two years old, died. Sisi blamed herself and never took her children with her again.

The Emperor and Empress were estranged for most of the rest of their lives, although a brief reconciliation in 1867 resulted in another daughter, to whom Sisi became quite close. Sadly, their son the Crown Prince committed suicide, and after that Sisi wore only black and continued trailing around Europe under a pseudonym, riding horses and writing poetry. She became known as 'the lady in black'.

The picture Franz-Josef kept in his study.
Back in Vienna in the Hofburg Palace, Franz-Josef became a grim old man, keeping his favourite portrait of Sisi, her long hair unravelled and looking ready for bed, on an easel in his study.

This site  has many pictures of Sisi, who was painted often in her life - she was indeed a great beauty.

In fact, Sisi was known for her "cult of beauty" - she took great pains to preserve her health and looks, and installed gym equipment in her private apartments in the Hofburg Palace in Vienna (you can still see it today). She was also an excellent horse-woman, riding dangerously in the hunt in England and Ireland. She believed in exercise and face creams (but not make-up), and watching her diet (though she was partial to Viennese pastries). She maintained all her life, with the help of severe corsets, a 50 cm waist; and of course, the glorious hair.

A variety of Sisi hairstyles displayed in Vienna's Sisi Museum.
The culmination of this unusual life was unexpected and tragic - Sisi was assassinated in 1898 in Geneva by an Italian political fanatic, for no apparent reason other than his need for notoriety. She'd had tea with Baroness Rothschild and was boarding a steamer to return home, when the crazy guy raced up and stabbed her in the heart with a small three-sided file -- the gory item is on display in Vienna's Sisi Museum. At first she stood up and  continued on her way, soon however collapsing. Her death provoked a great outpouring of grief, not least from Franz-Josef, who was reported to have said to his doctor, "You'll never know how much I loved that woman".

I put it down to the hair.

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