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The Empress Elizabeth of Austria

In: ''Fashion and Fetishism'' by David Kunzle

Elisabeth was born in 1837 of the eccentric Bavarian Wittelsbach royal line, and married the young Emperor Francis Joseph of Austria-Hungary when she was sixteen. After the relative freedom of her Bavarian childhood, she found herself thrust into Europe's most ossified court. Her sense of personal dignity and independence as well as her very real democratic and humanitarian instincts continuously offended against the role into which she was cast.

Her first ''political'' duty was to breed. She had three children in quick succession, after which, despite her excellent health and natural fertility, she refused to have any more (although she was later to have a fourth child), and encouraged her husband to take a mistress and develop a ménage à trois rather than suffer his sexual attentions. This sexual rejection was all the more publicly scandalous and personally painful in that the Emperor was known to be (or have been) infatuated with his wife. The result was that the Empire, after the suicide of their only son, the Crown Prince Rudolph, was left without a male heir. In the oppressively rigid Habsburg court, and under the constant interference of her mother-in-law, the Archduchess Sophie, which prevented her from breast-feeding her children and developing a natural relationship with them, she became reputed sexually frigid (she had been virtually raped on her wedding-night), and unmaternal, as she herself confessed, ''loath(ing) the whole business of child-bearing'' (Haslip, p. 87; Paléologue, p. 17).

Her sexuality was sublimated in her attachment to her younger daughter Valerie, large animals (especially horses), and the cultivation of her own body. She was famous for her equestrianship - haute école, circus-style stunt riding, and hunting. At 44 years ''she looked like an angel and rode like the devil'' (Haslip p. 325). When she finally gave up riding in 1882, she devoted herself to marathon solitary hikes, swimming, gymnastics and fencing.

The Empress' fear of pregnancy, her mania for sport and violent exercise, her preoccupation with her physique, her peculiar diet, her attitude to dress - all had one common denominator: the preservation of a figure which was naturally very slender, small-boned and muscular. She was tall (172cm, five feet eight inches), and never weighed over 50 kilos (111 pounds) all her adult life. Her legendary beauty and charm brought her oppressive adulation wherever she went in Europe. She preserved her youthful appearance in the face of what press and medical opinion viewed as bizarre, not to say improper, excesses in sport, diet and slimming. She hated to have to sit down to eat. She abominated banquets. For long periods she lived on a daily diet of raw steak and a glass of milk or orange-juice. She struck people as hyperactive, and astonishingly hardy. Her illnesses were all evidently psychosomatic, and her neurotic crises always cleared up when she was away from court, and was free to travel and ride, free of the gaze of courtiers and public, which she experienced as physically painful - as a visual rape.

Her diary, alas, was destroyed by the police after her death. But further study of archival material, of medical and newspaper reports, might reveal much more of the precise circumstances surrounding her youthful reputation for tight-lacing. It seems that around 1860-61 her waist measured no more than the 16 inches of the belt exhibited in London at the Great Exhibition (cf. pp. 220-21). Why was an object with such scandalous associations put on public display? With her horror of publicity, especially as regards details of her personal life, it seems inexplicable that the Empress would have encouraged gossip around so intimate a matter as a waist-measurement. If the numerous biographies remain silent on this curious episode, is it because domestically the matter was hushed up? After all, in order to protect the imperial dignity the police actively suppressed stories of her equine acrobatics, and destroyed photographs pertaining to it. If the 16 inch belt was displayed with her permission and knowledge (and it seems hard to conceive otherwise) or, worse, on her personal initiative, was it intended as a provocation? Was it the bizarre symbol of or satire upon the exhibitionism to which the most adulated woman in Europe was subject?

Her ''peak tight-lacing period'' seems to coincide with the prolonged and recurrent fits of paranoid depression which she suffered 1859-60, which have been attributed to her husband's political defeats, her three pregnancies, her sexual withdrawal, and quarrels with her mother-in-law over the rearing of her children. Immediately after each pregnancy, she dieted and exercised rigorously; the smallness of her waist, which she appeared to flaunt and exaggerate, angered the Archduchess, who wanted her to be continuously pregnant. There were frequent rumours of grave illnesses at this time; consumption was widely diagnosed, and she was even accused of killing herself with tight-lacing. Her health improved immediately after she left Vienna for extended travels, and was able to confront the physical hardships of nature and sport. On her return to Vienna in August 1862, a lady-in-waiting noted her improved sociability, and that ''she looks splendidly, she eats properly, sleeps well, and does not tight-lace anymore'' (Corti, p.107). At this time her waist-measure had probably increased to 18 inches, its reputed extent (more or less) until her death (de Burgh, p.198, put it at 20). (Cf. Pl. 86). Other costumes exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art had external measures of 18 1/2 (bridal evening dress, 1854) and 19 1/2 (two, including the bodice through which the Empress was stabbed to death, repr. Joseph Wechsbert). In 1882, she is described by the Prince of Hesse as ''almost inhumanly slender.'' In 1887 she was ''scarcely human in (her) fantastic attributes of hair and line'' (Haslip, pp. 334 and 373). In 1890, she is still ''graceful, but almost too slender'' and ''excessively slender, but still in terror of growing stout'' (De Burgh, p.58; Corti, p.425). She was at this time having herself heavily massaged, and wrapped naked in wet sheets impregnated with seaweed. She transmitted her horror of fat women to her daughter Valerie, who was positively terrified when, as a little girl, she first met Queen Victoria.

Her body became a religious cult, but one of a highly ascetic and solitary nature. Clothing, as such, was excluded from the cult. She disliked the expensive accoutrements and the constant changes of outfit to which her role condemned her. She caused offence by the plainness, the preferred monochrome of her attire (De Burgh, p.292). What mattered to her was perfect fit.

An essential and early constituent of her legend was that she was regularly sewn into her riding-habit. ''It was common knowledge in the hunting-field that a tailor from Whitchurch went every day to the Abbey to sew the skirt of the Empress' habit onto her close-fitting bodice, so that there should not be the slightest crease or wrinkle around her 18 inch waist'' (Haslip, p. 325). Her niece Countess Marie Larisch (p.65) confirms this custom, and that ''she wore high laced boots with tiny spurs.'' Her English hunting companions loved her for her warmth, modesty, ease of manner, for the fact that she was not (otherwise) at all ''sewn-in,'' and for her anger at any instance of cruelty to horses which came to her attention (De Burgh, p.289).

Some of her corsets were made in leather, like those of a Parisian courtesan. ''Her many-coloured satin and moiré corsets were made in Paris, and she only wore them for a few weeks. They had no front-fastenings (i.e., no split busk, current since c. 1860), and Elizabeth was always laced into her corsets, a proceeding which sometimes took quite an hour (!-sic). She never wore petticoats ... when she took her walks she slipped her unstockinged feet into her boots, and wore no underlinen of any description ... she slept on an iron bedstead, with no pillows'' (Larisch, p.78).

Her hair was a glory, in texture very thick and wavy, a rich chestnut in colour, and hung down below her knees. Dressing it was the most important ritual of the toilette, which lasted up to two hours, during which she usually read, or studied languages. Many anecdotes testify how her self-imposed ''enslavement'' to her hair sublimated her sense of enslavement to the public role, how she used her capillary crown ''in order to get rid of the other one'' (the imperial crown). The hair was inviolable, mystical, almost literally sacred, a cult of which her spoiled and arrogant hairdresser was the high-priestess (Tschuppik, p.114, De Burgh, p.58, Corti, p.112, etc.)

The biography of the Austrian Empress contains a whole psychology of fetishism, which emerges with peculiar intensity and pathos as a function of her struggle within her uniquely elevated social rank. The rituals around her riding, slimming cures, corseting and hair were various channels of escape from and protest against her public role, attempts to recover an individual identity of which a pettifogging court, a devouring public, insatiable reporters and photographers constantly worked to deprive her.


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