Elisabeth of Austria was the Empress of Austria by her marriage to Emperor Franz Joseph I from 1854 until her assassination in 1898. In her time she was a renowned beauty, so much so that when presented to her future husband (who at the time was promised to her sister) he immediately fell in love with her and wished to marry her instead. Despite her husband’s infatuation, Elisabeth who was naturally shy and introverted was unhappy with her new station at the strict Austrian court. Her mother in law (and maternal aunt) also made her life difficult, even limiting her access to her own children. This had a profound impact of Elisabeth’s self esteem and to remedy this she undertook a strenuous exercise and beauty regime.
At 5 feet 8 inches, Elisabeth was extremely slender for her height at 50kg (110 pounds). Her slenderness was exacerbated by her use of tight lacing, which reduced her waist circumference to a mere 16 inches. Her beauty became such an integral part of her identity that after the age of 32 she always refused photographs, preferring to keep the image of her as eternally young and beautiful.
Elisabeth’s long chestnut hair was one of her trademarks and would take two or three hours a day to style. She would use this time to learn different European languages. Every two weeks her long hair was washed with a mixture or raw eggs and cognac, that would take the entire day to wash.
She was not one to use cosmetics as she preferred to showcase her natural beauty. This was probably a good thing as nineteenth-century cosmetics often contained harmful ingredients such as lead or arsenic. However, Elisabeth did engage in some DIY beauty products. One of her favourites was called, ‘Crème Céleste’ which was a mixture of white wax, spermaceti (a waxy substance found in sperm whales), sweet almond oil, and rosewater. She slept without a pillow, preferring to rest on a metal bedstead with a nightly mask made of either crushed strawberries or raw veal. While I can’t speak for the success of raw veal as a night mask ingredient, strawberries are great sources of vitamin C and have acidic qualities that make them great for removing imperfections, so she may have been on to something. Elisabeth even slept with cloths that were usually soaked in violets or cider-vinegar around her waist as it was thought they would preserve her figure. She also took cold showers every morning and an olive oil bath in the evening.
Elisabeth had four children with her husband, although she absolutely hated being pregnant, to the displeasure of her mother in law. She felt that pregnancy ruined a woman’s beauty and this angered the imperial court as she subverted their expectations by refusing to be constantly pregnant.
Elisabeth of Austria stands as an example of how the values women were forced to aspire to throughout history had a damaging effect on their self-esteem. Elisabeth was expected to fulfil the ornamental purposes of a consort (e.g. being compliant and having babies) however, she was too free spirited for that lifestyle. Her beauty was the last thing she felt she could control. The reality was that she was so much more, she was an intelligent and educated woman who had an interest in languages, history and philosophy. She liked writing poetry and would often stay up late into the night writing and reading. Elisabeth was even important in creating the dual Austria-Hungary monarchy due to her deep appreciation of Hungary. Although her beauty rituals and exercise regimen have become legendary, she was far more complex and remarkable than what her obsessions with her beauty imply.