Lucky for us, the life of Sisi (Empress Elisabeth of Austria, 1837-1898), coincided with the development of photography. So there are many pictures of the Empress and her beautiful dresses to admire.
But there still are some mysteries to unravel. What did her wedding dress look like? What colour is the Hungarian coronation dress? And was she really only wearing black after the dead of Rudolf in 1889? Find the answer in the Corfu dresses!
Empress Sisi was a dedicated follower of fashion, or did she define the fashion of her time?
Fact is, you can tell the history of lady’s fashion by sorting her pictures historically.
Unfortunately there is no trace or even a good picture or painting to be found of Sissi’s wedding dress. At least, I cannot determine which one is the real one.
I found a postcard with the text “Elisabeth, Kaiserin von Osterreich im Brautkleid”. But this looks too plain to be the wedding dress of the next Empress of Austria.
Another painting supposedly showing Sisi as a bride is "Kaiserin Elisabeth von Österreich, Herzogin in Bayern", by Franz Schrotzberg.
However, this was painted in 1853 as a gift to Emperor Franz Joseph for his engagement to Sisi, and therefore painted before the wedding.
Two other sources could shed some light.
There is the picture of the wedding from the Stadtchronik Wien.
And the best image to go on is probably this contemporary fashion plate that shows Sisi and probably her mother Ludovika. Both dresses look similar and are embroidered with silver. This is an important clue!
Following a tradition of those days, the dress was donated to the church after the wedding. There they cut out the silver embroidery with intricate flower garlands and used it to decorate a priests mantle!
Thanks to Sisi’’s daughter Archduchess Marie Valérie a part of the wedding dress was preserved. She kept the gold embroided silk wedding train, that was an independent element of the wedding dress, as a special reminder. In 1989, it was found in the possession of the descendants of the Archduchess and acquired by the kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. You can take a look at it there when it’s on display.
So here it is, all that is left of the dress nowadays; The embroidery on this ivory-colored priest's mantle, now on display in Vienna's Sisi Museum and the wedding train.
Good news, there are a lot of photographs, paintings and even a replica of the coronation dress that Elisabeth wore when she was crowned Queen Elisabeth of Hungary and Bohemia.
As the Hungarian were concerned, the coronation of Franz-Jospeh and Elisabeth as king and queen of Hungary in 1867, was the most important event ever. So a lot of photos where taken by the official court photographer, Emil Rabending.
Unfortunately the photos are in black and white, so the scholars are now arguing about the colour of the dress, is it black, or is it blue?
The gown of velvet and white silk was designed by the Parisian couturier Charles Frederick Worth, one of Sisi's favourite designers (and of most of the European royalty at the time).
The design was based on the traditional Hungarian gala dress that had been worn at the Hungarian court since the fifteenth century.
Even though there are photographs of this dress, the painters at the time gave their own twist to it, so as you can see here that they did not always get the details right!
Makes you wonder how accurate other paintings are, where there is no photo evidence to back it up!
The story goes that the last time that Empress Elisabeth was spotted in a coloured dress at an official occasion was at the engagement party of Marie-Valerie on Christmas 1888 (also Sisi’s birth date). She wore a rather hideous (sorry, my opinion) ivory/white/pink/grey (?) dress.
Only 5 weeks later crown Prince Rudolf committed suicide together with his mistress on 30 January 1889. Since that day Sisi only wore black. That is what the official pictures and scholars suggest.
There are many pictures of her in black dresses, and some beautiful replica’s. But fact is that black was very fashionable in this era. Sisi wore a lot of black, even before 1889, and not only when she went horseback riding or attended a funeral.
Did she never wear colour again after 1889? There is evidence to answer that question.
In 2012 a blue dress was auctioned in Vienna. After some study it proved to be part of the Corfu wardrobe of Sisi. The evidence was a label sown into the back of the neck of the dress. The label bears the typical embroidered crowned dolphin that was sown in all the Corfu dresses of Sisi.
Red and blue label with the crowned dolphin, used for the Corfu wardrobe of Empress Elisabeth of Austria
The Achilleion, Sisi’s palace on Crete, was built between 1889-1891, and since then Sisi used to visit twice a year until 1898. This means she wore this dress in the 1890s, after the death of Crown Prince Rudolf!
Maybe Sisi reserved the black mourning look for her official appearances in Vienna, but did not find this a suiting dress code while travelling. A more informal, lighter and colourful wardrobe would suit that purpose better.
According to the Sisi Museum this dress dates from the 1880s.
In this period the bustle was very popular, except for a short period from 1878 to 1882 when the bustle disappeared for a while, under the influence of the very early beginnings of women’s emancipation, and flat-backed dresses were hip and happening.
Around 1883 the bustle was back though, more prominent even than in the early bustle period.
Looks like someone made some alternations to this dress, to make it wearable in both periods and still be in style. Would be a waste to leave a dress like that lying around!
Fact is that this dress had the Cofu lable in the back. Since Sisi's Corfu Palace was ready in 1891 my guess is that she wore it after the dead of Rudolf.