Earlier this month, fashion's fanciest gathered in Salzburg for the annual Chanel Métiers d'Art collection. The runway show, meant to showcase the brand's couture bona fides, was held in a palace, featured Alpine-inspired looks and models looped around a centerpiece laden with fruits and sweets. To launch the festivities, Karl Lagerfeld made a short film imagining Pharrell Williams and Cara Delevingne as a pair of glamorous Austrian royals.
US Weekly cooed: "Pharrell Williams, Cara Delevingne Channel a Prince and Princess for Chanel Short Film: See the Glam Clip!" Well, that "prince and princess" are better known as Franz Joseph and Elisabeth, emperor and empress of Austria, the last major ruler of the Habsburgs and one of nineteenth-century Europe's most famously beautiful women, respectively. Empress Elisabeth, not actually a princess, is best known as Sisi.
In the English-speaking world, Sisi is admittedly a deep cut, as female royals go. If there's an Austrian aristo most Americans can name, it's Marie Antoinette, daughter of Habsburg empress Maria Theresa. (But of course, hardly anybody remembers the ill-fated French queen was born in Vienna.) Still, Sisi remains a byword for glamour, one that designers drop when they want to conjure opulence without the guillotines. Since her death, she's inspired a Barbara Cartland novel, a trilogy of beloved Austrian films, an entire cottage tourism industry and, oddly enough, Jessica Simpson's wedding gown. She gets a loving paragraph in Diana Vreeland's memoirs, D.V.:
And Elisabeth, Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary, is one of my heroines…. Elisabeth adored her hair, took great care of her hair…. perhaps you remember the great Winterhalter portrait. She was one of the first modern women. She was one of the first women who did exercises, one of the first who did gymnastics, and one night a week she'd go to bed in special sheets of bath toweling packed in beefsteaks—for her skin. Apparently, she never looked older than thirty—ever.
Sisi was also one of the most famously miserable royals who ever drew a breath. She despised the snotty, formal Habsburg court and spent as much time as possible far from Vienna and her dutiful, plodding husband. Shy to a degree that was practically paralyzing, she loathed public appearances and dodged them whenever she could—far too often, critics said. She feuded endlessly with her adamantine-willed mother-in-law. She spent years drifting around Europe, writing maudlin poetry, bemoaning her (very, very privileged) life. She was a complicated, high-strung woman who emphatically refused to live by others' rules; unfortunately, she couldn't seem to hammer out her own code, either. Her story is a bracing corrective to every princess trope Disney has ever pumped into popular culture. And now she's remembered, by and large, as a pretty lady with a tiara.
History does strange things to dead women.
Let's orient ourselves, using Princess Diana as our royal North Star. Sisi's story overlaps significantly with that of the People's Princess: Both married young and naive, both were saddled with domineering mothers-in-law, both grew into beautiful, glamorous and tragic figures, and in both cases, it didn't take Susan Miller to see trouble coming.
But there's a pretty major difference in how their stories open: Prince Charles came to his marriage grudgingly, and Diana was practically pulled from a lineup of perfect princess candidates. With Sisi, it was obvious from the beginning she was dreadfully unsuited to the job—but the young emperor Franz Joseph wanted her, and that was that.
Jean Haslip's The Lonely Empress records Sisi's birth in 1837, in Munich, one of eight siblings. She was a Wittelsbach, a member of the ruling family of Bavaria, though not (and this is important) from the branch that actually sat on the throne. The family had a longstanding reputation for kookiness; Sisi's cousin Ludwig would later fritter away much of their dynastic fortune building castles like Neuschwanstein, an enormous and enormously tacky homage to Richard Wagner that's said to have inspired Cinderella's castle at DisneyLand. Sisi's father Max was famously eccentric, with his drinking and his liberalism and his raucous crew of artsy and intellectual friends. He didn't much stand on ceremony, and he had little patience for courtly rigamarole.
Franz Joseph, the man who'd make Sisi an empress, was practically an animate sack of courtly rigamarole. He found himself on the throne at 18. That was thanks in no small part to his mother, the Bavarian-born Archduchess Sophie, who redefined the term formidable. Seemingly every account that mentions her claims that Sophie was for a time known as "the only man in the Hofburg." Apocryphal, maybe, but certainly telling. When the upheavals of 1848 drove out Prince Metternich—the foreign minister and legendary political scheme who'd helped reassemble Europe after Wellington finally stomped Napoleon, as well as less-than-effective Emperor Ferdinand—Sophie made sure her husband took a pass on the throne so it skipped to their son, Franz Joseph. (For more on this fancy bit of governmental footwork, see Andrew Wheatcroft's Habsburgs: Embodying Empire.) They put off the democracy-demanding hordes by swapping the old boss out for a younger, much better-looking new boss.
This woman who so thoroughly influenced Franz Joseph in his early years was a dyed-in-the-wool reactionary. She believed in the rituals and the ceremony and the formalities. She wasn't the type to give two shits whether a daughter-in-law felt stifled. From Brigitte Hamann's The Reluctant Empress (noticing a theme, here?):
Archduchess Sophie was still entirely caught up in eighteenth-century thinking. She had no high opinion of individualism, let alone emotion, as an element in court politics—in contrast to her daughter-in-law-to-be. On one occasion, Sophie wrote to Princess Metternich that one should not believe "that individual personalities have any significance." She had always noticed that one person was replaced by another, without making the slightest difference in the world.
Sophie was Sisi's aunt, and for various personal and political reasons, she liked the idea of her son marrying one of her sister Ludovika's daughters (because that's the way you roll when you're European royalty, I guess). Specifically, she liked the looks of Helene, Sisi's older sister. Sophie and Ludovika arranged a meeting in the Austrian resort town of Bad Ischl, but their plan went sideways when Franz Joseph fell for Sisi practically on sight. Sophie described their meeting in a letter to Marie of Saxony, via Hamann: "He beamed, and you know how his face can beam when he is happy. The dear little one did not suspect the deep impression she had made on Franzi."
Don't mistake that anecdote for wholehearted approval. Sophie also wrote: "He told me, his expression beaming, that he found Sisi charming. I begged him not to act rashly, to think the matter over carefully, but he felt that it would not be right to delay." According to her diary, he praised her "soft, lovely eyes," her "lips like strawberries," calling her "fresh as a budding almond." Sisi was, for the record, 15, and not really in the position to turn him down. (She apparently burst out to Sophie: "I love the Emperor so much! If only he were not the Emperor!")
And so a moody teenaged girl married into one of the stuffiest, fussiest courts in Europe. It did not go well.
When Sisi arrived, the Austrian aristocracy didn't exactly roll out the welcome wagon. As far as they were concerned, she might as well have been born in a barn. (Presumably plenty of mommas were miffed their daughters hadn't gotten a fair shot if this sort of girl was the final selection.) Nor did she have the necessary training—her wardrobe, education in Austrian history and crash-course in protocol were all rush jobs. Nor did Sisi turn the charm up to eleven. She couldn't cope well with the crowds and the pressure. Hamann writes:
"At the sight of so many strangers, the young Empress panicked and fled to an adjoining room, where she broke out in tears. We can easily imagine the whispering among the ladies in full regalia waiting for the bride in the audience chamber. When Sisi finally joined the reception exhausted and unsteady, her face tear-stained, she provided new food for gossip. For she was too timid to make conversation with each of the ladies presented to her. According to protocol, however, no one was allowed to speak to the Empress except to reply to questions."
Wrote one witness, Baron Karl Kübeck, in his diary (via Hamann): "On the podium and among the spectators, jubilation and expectant joy. Behind the scenes, increasingly somber, very somber signs."
A sampling of the sort of poetry she was writing almost immediately after her wedding: "Fresh spring returns/And trims the trees with new green/And teaches new songs to the birds/And makes the flowers bloom more beautifully./But what is springtime bliss to me/Here in the faraway, strange land?/I long for the sun of home,/ I long for the banks of the Isar." (Another poem contains the line, "I have awakened in a dungeon,/With chains on my hands.") You can't really blame her, considering she married into the sort of situation where the whole palace knew the morning after she'd been deflowered. She was expected to offer her subjects her hand for the kissing, even if they were friends or relatives. She wasn't allowed to wear a pair of shoes more than once.
Sisi grew increasingly miserable, and her mother-in-law bore the brunt. She didn't like the micromanaging, the constant correction of her behavior, the fact that one of Sophie's closest friends was assigned as lady-in-waiting and therefore followed her everywhere. Their relationship went from bad to worse when the empress began having children. Sophie took charge of their upbringing, parking the nursery closer to her apartments than Sisi's. Years later Elisabeth told one of her ladies in waiting, after the birth of her fourth (and favorite) child (via Hamann):
"Only now do I understand what bliss a child means. Now I have finally had the courage to love the baby and keep it with me. My other children were taken away from me at once. I was permitted to see the children only when Archduchess Sophie gave permission. She was always present when I visited the children. Finally I gave up the struggle and went upstairs only rarely."
But slowly, surely, Sisi began to act out. She welcomed her brother's wife into the family—an actress who'd already borne him a daughter out of wedlock. She donated to help a Protestant congregation build a steeple—and remember, the Habsburgs were once Holy Roman Emperors. She took increasingly liberal political stances, increasingly loudly. She threw balls but invited only young people, not their higher-ranking mothers.
In 1860, her health collapsed. It's not entirely clear why, but historians speculate that her punishing exercise regimen and aggressive diets—which, to a modern eye, look awfully like disordered eating—might've contributed. Her son's birth in 1858 was hard. She was coughing constantly. Then there were rumors Franz Joseph had taken a mistress. Whatever the reasons, she decamped to Madeira for several months, returned, temporarily, then took off for Corfu. And when she returned, she came into her prime.
For one thing, she'd grown into a full-blown beauty and she knew it. The famous portrait by Franz Xaver Winterhalter (which appears in Lagerfeld's short film) was painted in 1865. So often, you look at portraits of famous beauties and think, "Eh." Looks just don't translate very well from generation to generation. But you look at that and the racier companion painting, and you can see it. The delicate features, the piles and piles of hair. She has the coquettish little closed-mouth smile of Vivien Leigh or a young Elizabeth Taylor.
"The Empress, as I have often told you before, is a wonder of beauty—tall, beautifully formed, with a profusion of bright brown hair, a low Greek forehead, gentle eyes, very red lips, a sweet smile, a low musical voice, and a manner partly timid, partly gracious," Hamann quotes an American envoy writing home in 1864—the famously lovely Empress had become one of Vienna's great tourist attractions even then. But she hated being on display. Her lady-in-waiting Marie Festetics repeats a conversation about gawking theatergoers: "How happy the people are when they see Your Majesty," she said, with Elisabeth replying,"Oh, yes, they're curious—whenever there's something to see, they come running, for the monkey dancing at the hurdy-gurdy just as much as for me."
Two years after that portrait was painted came her greatest triumph: Her coronation with Franz Joseph as King and Queen of Hungary. This may sound like a matter of procedure, but in fact it was a major break with the beginning of her husband's reign, which had launched with the bloody repression of a Hungarian break for freedom. But things had changed by the late 1860s. By this point, the Habsburgs' domain was a cobbled-together jalopy rolling down the road of history, wheels rattling loudly, parts of varying importance flying off. They lost a province here, an ally there. Nationalism was an increasingly powerful force, eroding the bonds that held this polyglot empire together. (Ultimately a Serbian nationalist would shoot Franz Joseph's heir, Franz Ferdinand, and launch the war that brought the whole thing crashing down around their ears.) Plus, the 1866 Austro-Prussian War pretty much snatched their power among the German states. They couldn't lose Hungary.
How exactly to hang on to Hungary—that was the question. They wanted their constitution back, as well as a Hungarian coronation for Franz Joseph (a nod to Hungary as an entity separate from Austria). Sophie loathed the country, and Franz Joseph's old-guard advisors largely opposed any leniency or special recognition. (Plus, the emperor had survived an assassination attempt at the hands of a Hungarian in 1853.) Naturally, in contrast to her mother-in-law, Sisi had developed a capital-R Romantic love for the country and an admiration for the dashing leader Gyula Andrássy, and she maneuvered relentlessly on their behalf, pestering her husband incessantly, bringing all her charms to bear, wearing him down as he considered his options. Ultimately, he agreed to the dual monarchy.
The coronation itself was pretty much peak Sisi. Haslip quotes Franz Liszt, who wrote that, "Erzsebet was a celestial vision." There's a reproduction of the gown she wore on display in Vienna today, and it's stunning:
It was around this time that Franz Joseph's younger brother Maximilian was killed, the culmination of his fucking fool attempt to become emperor of Mexico at the urging of Napoleon III. (Yes, that really happened.) Between that and the ascendance of Hungary, Sophie was pretty much finished as a force to be reckoned with. That dragon was vanquished.
If you rolled the credits here, it would still be possible to see Sisi's story as a fairy tale. But of course, life doesn't work like that.
The young Sisi makes a sympathetic figure, but the deeper you get into her life, she's increasingly frustrating. Most of the information in this article comes from Haslip's fairly straightforward 1965 biography and Hamann's more overtly feminist 1986 work. Haslip often seems downright disgusted with her subject. Hamann puts Elisabeth's unhappiness in context, and yet you still get the feeling she occasionally wants to screech at the woman. As one of Sisi's own ladies in waiting wrote (via Haslip):
"The Empress is sweet and good, but she makes everything a burden for herself, and what to others is a source of happiness becomes for her a source of discontent. She seems to me like a child in a fairytale. The good fairies came, and each of them laid a splendid gift in her cradle, beauty, sweetness, grace… dignity, intelligence and wit. But then came the bad fairy and said 'I see that everything has been given you, but I will turn these qualities against you and they shall bring you no happiness. I will deprive you of something which a man bears within him unconsciously—moderation in your actions, occupations, thoughts and sensibilities. Nothing will bring you happiness, everything will turn against you. Even your beauty will bring you nothing but sorrow and you will never find peace."
You see this theme more and more, the longer you watch Sisi's life unspool. After the coronation she played little role in politics. She spent long stretches in Hungary, Bavaria and other assorted European locales; she had little to discuss with her prosaic husband back in Vienna. The decades were dominated by passions that flared and then were just as quickly dropped: Her mania for horses, which took her "riding to hounds" in England and Ireland; her villa in Greece, built at tremendous expense and promptly abandoned; the spiritualist period, which was admittedly de rigeur for the nineteenth century. She wrote reams and reams of maudlin poetry, often painting herself as the untouchable fairy queen Titania. The effort dedicated to maintaining her looks intensified. Her niece Marie Latisch outlined a wide variety of outlandish beauty measures: "nightly face masks with raw veal, during strawberry season a strawberry mask, warm olive-oil baths to maintain the smoothness of her skin…. 'damp cloths over her hips to maintain her slenderness, and for the same reason, she drank a dreadful mixture of five or six egg whites with salt.'"
Her behavior was growing strange, too. Her daughter Valerie (13 at the time) wrote in 1881 in her diary: "Mama had a very strong bath, and when I went in to her, she could not stop laughing, the bath had made her completely nervous. I was afraid, but fortunately she is already well again today." Four years later, she wrote during one of Sisi's illnesses: "Much worse than the ailment is Mama's indescribable despair and hopelessness. She says that it is a torment to be alive, and she indicates that she wants to kill herself."
She also told poor Valerie things like, "I really love nobody but you… the whole of that capacity for loving which has hitherto been imprisoned in my heart I have poured out upon you" (via Haslip) and (via Hamann): "Marriage is an absurd arrangement. One is sold as a fifteen-year-old child and makes a vow one does not understand and then regrets for thirty years or more, and which one can never undo again." Fair to the institution of monarchical marriage, perhaps, but not a particularly kind thing to say to a daughter who loves her father, too.
In 1889 came the greatest catastrophe of Sisi and Franz Joseph's lives. Their son Rudolf died at his hunting lodge, Mayerling, as part of a suicide pact; he shot his young mistress then several hours later put a bullet through his own brain. He was their only son, and he died without an heir, which is the only reason Franz Ferdinand ever found himself in the historical spotlight.
After Mayerling, Sisi's spa-to-spa drifting intensified, as everyone around her fretted about her dark depressive spells. She was on yet another trip—Geneva, this time—when she was stabbed on the street by an anarchist. Her corset was so tight nobody realized what had happened until she made it back to her ship, collapsed, and died.
Visit Vienna today, and it's obvious that Sisi is essentially the German-speaking Scarlett O'Hara. She's everywhere. The Winterhalter portrait appears on brochures, magnets, coffee cups, chocolates, tote bags, Christmas ornaments—you name it, they're selling it. Gift shops on every corner carry replicas of the diamond stars she wears in the painting. Sites connected (even tangentially!) to Elisabeth always seem the most crowded. One of the most popular attractions in the Hofburg, the centuries-old seat of Habsburg power, is her exercise equipment. You see her popping up in cafes and coffee houses all over town.
The most up-to-date exhibits I saw in Vienna were in the wing devoted to the Sisi Museum. The show-stopper is the room full of carefully preserved remnants of the empress's wardrobe, which is kept dim and more thoroughly climate-controlled than the Treasury holding literal religious relics. Much of the museum is dedicated to gently but firmly correcting the misinformation in the beloved Austrian film trilogy that began with 1955's Sissi, which is perhaps most responsible for Elizabeth's legacy.
Take everything I just told you and chuck it out the window, because history bears hardly any relation to these flicks. Gone is the difficult woman who spent much of her life lurching unhappily from obsession to obsession, frantically working to maintain her beauty and avoid the public eye. Picture Rebecca of Schonbrunn Farm; Anne of Bavarian Gables. Their appeal is obvious. They offer the hoop skirts, sweeping soundtrack and breathless romance of Gone with the Wind, without Scarlett's bitchiness or, you know, the slavery. Plus Austria looks absolutely lovely in mid-fifties film stock, like an ancient copy of National Geographic:
Star Romy Schneider is flat-out adorable, harmlessly cute like a young Debbie Reynolds and outfitted in a series of fluffy gowns like meringues. She first bursts into the frame on horseback, whooping happily, and shortly thereafter cheers on a baby deer in a scuffle with an equally harmless dog. She loves her home in Possenhofen and spends her days hiking with her beloved Papa, kitted out in traditional Bavarian garb. She meets Franz Joseph when she accidentally catches him with a fishing pole. This is patently ridiculous; nothing that charming ever happened to Franz Joseph in his entire life. (Bless his heart, he was a natural-born bureaucrat.) But of course the cinematic character bears no resemblance to his real-world analogue. He's a darling strawberry blonde cutting a dashing figure in his military uniforms and most of his dialogue seems to be saying "Sisi" in varying emotional tones. He bursts with incandescent happiness at seeing his beloved bride.
His mother, the archduchess, is unequivocally the villain of the piece. She's constantly making trouble between Franz and Sisi, lurching around one palace or another in black and purple and dark blue like a scheming crow. Vilma Degischer plays her as the archetypal bitchy mother-in-law, and it's actually pretty entertaining. But once again. the rough edges have been filed off. Forget the woman who seized a power vacuum to put her son on the throne of imperial Austria and replace her with Agatha, from Bewitched.
Pitted against this judgmental version of Sophie, Sisi becomes a romanticised, dramatically simplified figure who just wants her freedom, where freedom seems to be defined as plenty of fresh air and ample opportunities to gambol. She's endlessly, unfairly chided for breaking the rules, which she always does charmingly: She simply can't help her natural high spirits! The power struggle over her children's upbringing is taken as an opportunity to paint her as a doting Victorian mama. The portrayal of her relationship to Hungary is especially telling—she's portrayed as guileless and apolitical, Angel in the House-ing her way into harmony between the two countries.
Conveniently, the third movie ends before Franz Joseph and Elisabeth lose their eldest child to a sudden illness in Hungary and decades before Rudolf's disastrous suicide at Mayerling—in other words, before it would've become hard to sustain the portrayal of the empress as a chipper, wide-eyed little dear. Schneider bailed and didn't reprise the role until 1972's Ludwig, about the Wagner-loving cousin king of Bavaria, where she appeared as an older, vastly more cynical Sisi.
Sisi hasn't been wholly reduced to the woman portrayed by Schneider. Her misery is sufficiently well known that in the 90s, a German pharmaceutical company declared the existence of "the Sisi Syndrome," a particular subset of depression common in women and characterized by listlessness. But the films have set the terms on which Sisi is memorialized, framing her legacy in a very specific way.
Outside Austria and Germany, Sisi is remembered primarily as a fashion icon, by people like Vreeland and Lagerfeld. Watch this clip, in which Carolina Herrara explains how Sisi and the iconic Winterhalter portrait inspired Jessica Simpson's custom-made wedding gown. "I love it that you're inspired by a painting," replies the clueless Newlyweds star. "That makes me feel special."
Of course, Sisi would probably relate to the relentless dieting (though certainly not the reality TV or blatant tabloid attention-seeking).
Lagerfeld's "Reincarnation" is more of the same romanticising. It's just an excuse to put Cara Delevingne in a poofy dress so she can twirl about with Pharrell (another upgrade for Franz Joseph, who'd probably die all over again if you played him something as boppy as "Happy"). (And Sisi would've loathed that getup Delevingne is wearing, which is some straight costume shop garbage.) The headlines are pretty telling. Elle: "Pharrell and Cara Delevingne Sing and Dance in Chanel Fairy Tale." The Gloss: "You'll Swoon When You See Pharrell As Cara Delevingne's Prince Charming In This New Ad." Cosmo: "Introducing Chanel's New Prince and Princess." Delevingne teased the film with Instagram images straight out of Cinderella:
Not that Lagerfeld gives two shits about accuracy, of course. "There's a touch of Pop Art in it," he told Women's Wear Daily. "It's not meant to be a historical reconstruction or something heavy like that. This is light and funny." You could compare her to any number of famous women (Princess Di, Kate Middleton, Kim Kardashian, Marie Antoinette). But Sisi reminds me of nobody so much as Marilyn Monroe—a complicated woman who died and was promptly reduced to a series of very, very lovely pictures. Nothing heavy, just a lady in a pretty poofy dress.
Images by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, via Wikipedia. Photos via AP.