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I have had a fascination with the Empress Elisabeth (Sisi) for many years no, and the more I read about her the more I identify with her in many ways.


Sisi - Empress Elisabeth of Austria

In order to maintain her admired beauty, Elisabeth tests countless beauty formulas. There is no individual secret recipe which she swears by, but time and again she tries something new. The beauty products are either produced in the court pharmacy, or prepared by a lady-in-waiting in her own apartment. It is interesting that Elisabeth attaches less importance to experimenting with unusual creams, than a wide variety of washing waters, tinctures and lotions, from which she apparently is expecting more results. Elisabeth most often uses a simple creams, produced in the court pharmacy. This so-called Crème Céleste is made from white wax, spermaceti, sweet almond oil and rosewater. Another cream, which (as recently discovered beauty formulas show) is repeatedly ordered for Elisabeth and highly appreciated by many ladies at court, is cold cream, which is made from almond oil, cocoa butter, beeswax and rosewater. It owes its name to the cooling and refreshing way it affects the skin: given that the water-oil-emulsion is instable and slightly breaks on the skin, the water evaporates faster, making the cream feel pleasantly cooling. For facial tonics Elisabeth mainly uses rose facial tonics, which are supposed to protect the skin from inflammation and uncleanness. Additionally, the Empress tries camomile-rose, lavender as well as violet lotions. But Elisabeth also swears by rather eccentric methods, such as masks from crushed strawberries or from raw veal, which she uses to inlay a facial mask made of leather to wear during the night. Contrary to other women of her time, Elisabeth strictly opposes heavy make-up or perfume. She sets a high value on naturalness, only her magnificent head of hair is being sprayed with perfume essences. Significantly more time than the care of her face, Elisabeth devotes to her body care and personal hygiene. She bathes daily and likes to alternate steam with oil baths and cold baths. She is exceedingly fond of warm olive baths that are intended to keep the skin tender and smooth.

At night she often sleeps with cloths soaked in vinegar above her hips, to preserve her slimness. Her favourite vinegar is violet vinegar, made from recently picked violet blossoms, cider vinegar, distilled water as well as violet powder: “Layer the violet blossoms into a bellied bottle, douse with cider vinegar. Shut tightly and allow to infuse for two days. Afterwards filter through a hair sieve and press out blossoms with a wooden spoon.

Take some distilled water and stir violet powder until smooth. Add it to the distilled water and shake it thoroughly together.” Furthermore Elisabeth is sleeping without a pillow – arguably to retain her upright posture – and allegedly wraps her neck with cloths soaked in Kummerfeld toned washing water.

Elisabeth was very beauty conscious and placed great emphasis on natural products. This makes her a pioneer of the anti-aging-movement of today.

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.

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. The high vitamin C content has an anti-inflammatory effect, the muscle protein element, keratin, acts against skin ageing. 

Recipe from the 18th century

Take 4 loth (loth ~ ½ oz) rose water, 2 loth milk, 1 loth unseasonable grape juice, 2 Quintchen (fifths) crushed frankincense, well whipped egg whites and intermingle them; then, before you go to bed, rub it in.

This recipe from the 18th century did not have any effect against freckles, but milk and egg white act as moisturiser.

Men and women of her time enthuse over Elisabeth’s fabulous beauty, and are even more allured by her grace, charisma and the mysterious aura surrounding the Empress. Elisabeth is one of the most beautiful women of her time and she herself is perfectly aware of this. Her cosmetic treatment takes up the better part of her daily routine. Elisabeth is particularly proud of her thick hair, of which the combing and dressing takes up between two and three hours a day.

Her hairdresser Franziska (Fanny) Feifalik plays a decisive role, since the former hairdresser of the Wiener Burgtheater is responsible for all the elaborate hairstyles.

While hairdressing she has to put on white gloves and is forbidden to wear rings. After dressing, braiding and pinning up the hair for hours, the fallen out hairs have to be presented in a silver bowl, each lost hair bringing about a look of reproach from the Empress. Her niece remarks mockingly, that “the hairs upon Aunt Sisi’s head are numbered”.

On a fortnightly basis, the hair is being washed with a specially made mixture of egg yolk and cognac, a procedure which takes up a whole day. In later years she probably tinges her hair with indigo and an extract made from nutshells. The hours spent with hairdressing are primarily used by Elisabeth to learn languages: Hungarian and later most notably ancient and modern Greek. For the latter she hired Constantin Christomanos, who reads to her, corrects her language exercises and philosophises with the Empress. Christomanos describes the hours of hairdressing in the Hofburg in the following way: “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.”

“I wander lonely in this world,

Delight and life long time averted,

No confidant to share my inner self,

A matching soul never revealed.”

(Sisi, The Poetic Diary)

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