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The beauty regime of a beautiful Empress

Empress Elisabeth of Austria was one of the most beautiful women of nineteenth-century Europe, yet this beauty was the determined result of intensive labour, at considerable cost. The cult of that beauty which astonished her contemporaries became Elisabeth’s personal myth when, past the age of thirty, she refused to be photographed – thereby establishing her own enigma.  Her reputation therefore once created, became eternal, with the ageing Empress adopting fans and parasols as constant companions to shield her face from others.

The spectacular vision of her portraits by the fashionable Franz Xaver Winterhalter, documented her beauty at its apogee – private paintings made for Emperor Franz Josef showing his beloved wife with her wonderful hair loose or worn crossed in a knot in front of her. Those famous diamond stars which studded her hair in Winterhalter’s shimmering 1865 portrait (in fact, inspired by a performance of W. A. Mozart’s The Magic Flute where she saw the Queen of the Night) ornamented what her own – literal – crowning glory was. Touchingly, the Hotel Beau Rivage in Geneva – where Elisabeth died shortly after a sharpened file was thrust in her heart by an anarchist – has glass light fixtures set with stars as a tribute to the legendary Empress.

Elisabeth said of her lustrously thick, chestnut brown (nearly ankle-length) hair that she was, a ‘slave’ to it, sometimes having to have long sections of it strung up on cords to relieve the pressure of its weight and reduce headaches. She liked to wear it braided, woven into a natural ‘crown’ of plaits, a style she made entirely her own and which was much copied at the time, though without success. Such hair splendour was the result of time-intensive processes and dedicated skill, and the dressing of her hair could take up to three hours of each day. Her one-time favourite niece, Countess Marie Larisch recalled that she would sometimes breakfast whilst her hair was being arranged. The Empress came to use this time also to study languages and later, converse with her tutor in Greek.

Her hair was usually washed once a month with a mixture of egg yolk and cognac, and this washing could take a whole day to complete. Marie, Countess Larisch – whose memoirs betray the Empress’s privacy and are highly inaccurate – confirms that this process took place monthly, adding that afterwards, the hair was rinsed with a kind of ‘disinfectant’.

The Countess continued: ‘When the actual washing was over, the Empress put on a long waterproof silk wrapper and walked up and down until her hair was dry. The woman who acted as her coiffeuse was hardly ever seen without gloves… her nails were cut close; rings were forbidden her; the sleeves of her white gown were quite short’ (Marie, Countess Larisch, My Past, pp. 77-78, London Eveleigh Nash, 1913).

Franz Xaver Winterhalter / Public domain “Empress Elisabeth of Austria, painted by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1865. Note the diamond stars in her hair.

The hairdresser was one Franziska (‘Fanny’) von Feifalik, (1842-1911) who had been a hairdresser at the Viennese theatres and finally, the Hofburg theatre. Impressed by the sophisticated hairstyle of one of the actresses she saw there, Elisabeth sought out Fanny. She appointed her as her hairdresser, as the Wiener Morgen Post reported in 1863. The task of dressing the Empress’s hair was one that required great skill and trust. So greatly did Elisabeth come to depend on Fanny that she permitted her to take her place at certain public events where at a distance, the dark-haired, beautiful Fanny could be passably mistaken for her.

Born Fanny Angerer, she married Hugo Ritter von Feifalik in 1866 and was called the ‘schöne Franzi’ [the beautiful Fanny]. Fanny dressed the hair of Elisabeth’s favourite daughter, Archduchess Marie Valerie as she prepared for her adolescent ball in 1882. Fanny’s annual salary was the extraordinarily large sum of 2,000 guldens (Brigitte Hamann, The Reluctant Empress, p. 134, Alfred A. Knopf, 1986). The Empress’s devoted Greek reader Constantin Christomanos described the hairdressing as a ‘sacred ritual’.

For it, Fanny wore a black dress with a white, cobweb-lace apron and used a special silver bowl for the dead hair she brushed out, which had to be shown to the Empress first. As the completion of a cult ritual, Christomanos described what happened next. Fanny Feifalik simply curtsied and said: ‘I lay myself at Your Majesty’s feet’ (cit., Ibid, pp. 136-7). This was a somewhat outmoded German expression which belonged more to the beginning of the nineteenth-century than its mid-point, the phrase of which in the original is to prostrate oneself in respectful submission at the feet of someone (‘sich j-m zu Füssen legen’).

Elisabeth’s dressing rooms were the ‘holy of holies’ in this beauty regime, where the procedures to sustain the reputation she had created, took place. Her Dressing & Exercise Room in the Hofburg palace was where Elisabeth spent a great deal of her day and where, in the winter, the hairdressing began in the dark at six o’clock in the morning. Elisabeth’s toilet table – complete with its silver mirror and brushes – stood next to the window in this room, then as now. Her rosewood Dressing Room at Schönbrunn Palace also survives, with its dressing table set.

To enter these dressing rooms now is to enter an artist’s studio – Fanny’s hair studio – where a beautiful artwork had to be created daily. For the newlywed imperial couple in 1854, the apartments that they would use in the Hofburg were redecorated by Archduchess Sophie, Elisabeth’s aunt and future mother-in-law. These included a toilet set for the new Empress Elisabeth to use – fashioned from massive gold (Hamann, p. 30). Predictably – but prophetically for Elisabeth – her wedding trousseau included a whole variety of tortoise-shell combs, hairbrushes and hairpins (Ibid, p. 32).

The Empress used a great number of experimental beauty recipes for the time, examples of which survive. One of these bears the heading of the court pharmacy, requesting for a beauty ingredient to be sent to Cottesbrooke, the elegant Queen Anne house in Northamptonshire that Elisabeth rented in the 1870s. In trying these, Elisabeth was striving to maintain the mythology that she had made for herself, yet in using such recipes she was not alone among her nineteenth-century royal contemporaries.

An earlier German example was the legendary Queen Louise of Prussia, who requested her pot of rouge at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, to sustain her appearance even in those extreme circumstances. One of these rouge pots with its applicator survives in the royal collection at Berlin. Queen Louise even copied out English beauty recipes using rosewater, in her own hand. Rouge at the court of Versailles had, of course, had its own separate and intensely political importance.

Unlike many nineteenth-century women, Elisabeth rejected heavy cosmetics and generally disliked perfume. Her royal contemporary Queen Victoria, by contrast, favoured the original 1709 Farina Eau-de-Cologne water (G. B. Farina became purveyor to the Court) and orange flower water, still produced in Grasse. Elisabeth did allow her hair to be sprayed with flavoured essences and Farina 1709 Eau-de-Cologne today lists the Empress among its most prestigious historical clients, so we must assume that Elisabeth used the Cologne water to fragrance her hair instead (her cousin, the legendary King Ludwig II of Bavaria, favoured Chypre).

Elisabeth’s lovely complexion later became chapped and weather-beaten, due to her constant exposure to the natural elements on her increasingly restless travels – particularly the stormy sea, which she loved. Nor was the condition of her skin aided by the regular hunger cures which she undertook, obsessed by her need to retain the waist measurement of her youth, recorded as remaining at 50 centimetres [19.5 inches].

According to Countess Larisch, Elisabeth once admitted: ‘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’ (Marie, Countess Larisch, p. 48).

This one-time favourite niece wrote of her beloved, beautiful aunt: ‘Elizabeth was not a believer in any special face treatment. Sometimes she only used a simple toilet cream; occasionally at night she wore a kind of mask “lined” inside with raw veal; and in the strawberry season she smeared her face and neck with the crushed fruit’.

To keep her skin supple, Elisabeth occasionally bathed in donkey’s milk or olive oil. She also drank ‘a horrible decoction composed of the whites of five or six eggs mixed with salt’ (Ibid, p. 77). A German contemporary of the Empress, the soulfully beautiful Elisabeth, Grand Duchess Sergei of Russia (1864-1918) inventively made up her own face cream, for which she used cucumber juice.

A sad commentary on all this beauty came after the Empress’s assassination at Geneva on 10 September 1898 at the hand of Luigi Lucchini9, an Italian anarchist. Her beloved daughter, Archduchess Marie Valerie, had a reliquary made for her private chapel. It also contained – poignantly – the brushes and combs with which the Empress’s legendary hair had been arranged after her death. After the assassination, Elisabeth’s hairdresser Fanny – her appointment ended with the Empress’s death – left the court and received a pension.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2020

About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, specializing in Queen Victoria's family, Russian royalty and the Habsburgs. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and BBC radio.