love your corsets

beautiful corsetFebruary is a good time to review underwear, don’t you agree? Go on now, I’ll wait while you unpack your chests of drawers and itemize your dainties. Out with the old. Buy something new. But what? Thongs? Please. Can you see me shaking my head in dismay? What has happened to substantial under clothes? Why are you ladies talked into substituting scraps for panties? It’s a conspiracy. Bring back the sateen crinolines. The lacy garters. Even the corsets. Oh, but I do envy you ladies of the modern world and your Spanx garments. Had I been able to maintain my 18-inch waist without whale ribs and tight-lacing, it’s quite possible that I would not have suffered universal opprobrium such as these historical write-ups on my hysterical nature:

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.

Paranoid depression? Ha! And, in the modern parlance, gah! Isn’t it just so easy to reduce complex family issues to the hysteria of the wife? In a world where ansteampunkgirl Empress had no control over anything BUT her actual body proper, can you blame me for being a fastidious commandeer of my underwear? My trim waist line? Oh, bring back the pearls and the ribbon that festooned a lady’s glory box! Allow that a woman should enjoy the feel of garments that enhance her natural gifts. Whoa be the naysayer who calls a female “crazy” just because she chooses to be sewn into her riding habit. Are you finished pawing through your briefs? Did you throw out the bikini panties with the worn elastic? Get thee to your favorite lingerie boutique and treat yourself to silk and brocade. The Empress insists!

waist training unpacked

amazing what a little whale bone and leather can do

A corset is a garment that girds the torso and shapes it according to the fashionable silhouette of the day. Most often it has been used for cinching the waist and supporting the breasts. This is what Wikipedia thinks, anyway. What is my definition of the corset? Thank you for asking. It depends on the day. When plagued by PMS and the like, well, a corset is a necessary evil–how else can one distort the female form into the hourglass ideal whilst hormones and nature have in mind something closer to, say, a treble clef?

But some days, when I’m feeling rather sane and disgusted by mankind in general, I’m all over the empire waist of the peasant gown. As sexy as a glo-worm on steroids. Think: 19th century muumuu. The ubiquitous and ever-popular caftan. Comfort over form. A bon-bon popping outfit to die in, er, for. On my corsetless days, nary a portrait artist would be permitted anywhere near the Hof. Could you imagine the damage to my reputation as history’s most perfectly molded empress should the Paparazzi catch me all bloated on one of my fat days? Can’t you just see the headline, with one of those arrows photoshopped in and pointing to my abdominal region: Sisi’s baby bump?

It is no secret that I boasted an 18-inch waist, and that I had my dear hairdresser Franziska measure it each day, while she tight-laced me into an hourglass so extreme, only three grains of sand might fall through it at once. Ladies, imagine squeezing yourself into a Spanx girdle, and then rolling a second one on over that, and then a third. Do you see the picture I’m trying to paint? Beauty is pain. Pain!

And, training the waist on a daily basis is not without its digestive consequences. All one’s intestines pushed up and down, the liver squeezed like Mr. Obie, causing an ancillary lobe to grow out the edges, ribs cracking, one’s waste compacted to the hardness of a battering ram. Not that I’m complaining–merely pointing out that maintaining the image of the perfect figure is not for sissies (not to be confused with sisi’s).

empress pink

hofburg dressing room

Fainting couches were necessary due to the corsets.

Pink is the new pink. Always.


It's the parquet and pink room at the kaiservilla in bad ischl

Though hardly a “girlie-girl,” as a trendsetter I have to admit, rose flattered me much more than, say, yellow. It brought out the health and vitality in my cheeks (thanks to my regime of drinking a vial of stag blood each day, I was spared much of the anemia that befell other royals). Deep-toned pink  suggests femininity, but points also to romance, energy, fascination, and, naturally, beauty.

pink corset

Note: this short-waister accentuates the bosom, rather than hiding it. Jus' sayin...

I filled my apartments with shades of pink. The salon in my summer home boasted pink upholstery. The lying-down room at the Hof. Ballgowns and bedclothes and schnitzel with noodles…oops! wrong pull.

Anyhow, no discussion of pink is complete without mentioning the unmentionables, yes? I owned many a salmon-hued corset: frilly-edged or plain, it mattered not, as long as the busking was of good baleen or cane, and the grommets were made of steel!

put a dolphin on it

Can't you just SEE me leaping about in this fabulous dress?

And while we’re on the subject of Corfu, I must take this opportunity to speak of my holiday wardrobe. It’s been said that my temperament did not bode well for the flounces, crinolines and bustles of the Viennese Court. Other than properly cinching my 18-inch waist, I was never a fan of constraint. For reference, I quote another female icon, in her cover of Me and Bobby McGee, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” No, no, I never did own a pair of faded jeans, but I was quite a fan of Victorian separates. My Corfu ensemble, exemplified in the summer dress you see here, was replete with light and breezy silk chiffon. A three-piecer, this frock, with pastel borders and Brussels lace. I loved the sound of it ruffling in the ocean breezes.

And, speaking of ocean, let us not forget the all-important accessory: the dolphin, which I had embroidered onto all my Corfu holiday apparel. Ah, how I idolized this creature, the most godlike of all animals. Intelligent, agile, quick, mercurial, whimsical and playful. Not to mention spiritual, known to shepherd souls of departed  kings and queens safely into the realm of the dead.

put a dolphin on it

Thanks to me, the dolphin became synonymous with Imperial holidays. I was never clad in an ensemble without this mythic creature. In fact, if IFC wants to do a spin-off of their campy Portlandia, I suggest they give it an historic spin, and explore the nineteenth-century Greek Isles. Just think of the possibilities, an eccentric, yet beautiful, empress skipping about in her summer dress whilst her minions delight in teaching her Greek and feeding her olives, all the while chanting: Put a dolphin on it.

empress of the month: eugenie

here she sits amid her ladies in a portrait by winterhalter (who, by the way, also painted yours truly)

She was the last French Empress, and quite a charmer, that María Eugenia Ignacia Augustina de Palafox Portocarrero de Guzmán y Kirkpatrick. She lived to the ripe age of 94, and was best known for starting up the caged crinolines fad (that, and a primary role in the ill-fated French intervention in Mexico).She was 26 when she wed Napoleon III, much to the disapproval of the snooty House of Bonaparte, but marry she did, dutifully producing an heir before closing her bed to her increasingly lecherous and obese husband (who satisfied his seeming bottomless appetite for the fair sex with countless public affairs).

In our day, an Empress set trends, and Eugenie was no exception. What initially was thought a scandal turned Paris on its ear in 1862 when the Empress got it in her little head to appear in public without a shawl. After the society hags simmered down women everywhere began to attend functions without cloaks and shawls, freeing them up to display their dresses without cover, and creating quite a ripple in the fashion world.

And, of course, other than me, Eugenie was the only decent rider among empresses of our day. In fact, it was her horseback prowess that first led to her husband’s initial interest in courting her (or so the gossip goes).

Eugenie's wedding ensemble, described in the London Times, 1853: White epiglé velvet, with rather large basque and demi-train. A veil of point d’Angleterre flowed from underneath a rich diadem sparkling with diamonds.

We were often referred to as “rivals.” How silly! Eugenie had a much more sophisticated style. Just look at her bridal get-up below. I was much more given to practicality. Well, as long as my waist was cinched in tight.

So, what do the Empress Eugenie and I have in common? Well, our “fancy ephemera” is featured on the Royal Paper Dolls website, along with Norway’s Queen Maude and the Peacock Princess.


what’s your steampunk style?

love the lines on this ensemble. pity you can't ride a horse in it tho.

Are you the Scientist, Gad-About, Aeronaut, FancyGirl,  or the Ragamuffin? Take this quick, fun quiz and find out! I may just select a random quiz-taker and send them a time-traveled prize!

P.S. I, myself, am a FancyGirl. But you knew that.

the battle hymn of the tight-lacer

an example of an ineffective corset, split down the front and made of wool, of all things.

As Empress, my first political duty was to breed, and I performed well. Girl, girl, heir, all before my 21st birthday. I don’t need to tell you girls what that does to a figure, yes?

At 172 cm and 50 kilos my whole adult life (other than the wretched pregnancies), many called my dieting regime excessive. Fine. Call it what you will, but I feel quite wounded when I endure criticism of my lacing practice–which kept my waist no bigger around than a young boy’s thigh. You see, tight-lacing sustained me. Made me feel secure, of one piece. Dainty and solid all at once.

Alas, fashion worked against me and my quest for continued perfection. By the time I hit the ripe old age of 29, corsets began to grow soft.

You call this a corset? Why, it couldn't hold in a fart!

Whalebone stays replaced by cording, split busks laced up the middle with inferior strips of leather, cotton or twine. And I resisted them all: the tearose silk flossed with putty ribbon, peach batiste embellished with frills. Nay, my corsets were made from the hide of a mature stag. And I insisted upon being laced “into” them, from behind, and it took an hour. Yes, an hour.

My corsets were also discarded after a fortnight, once they gave up their “new corset” smell. The smell of strength. Of industry. Once a corset cracked on the eyelet, even a smidge, off it went to the poor. (Though admittedly, the poor had little use for an 18 inch corset, most likely it was used to flog soil from rugs.)

Despite my tight-lacing ways, once secured into my undergarment, I felt safe, and therefore happy. With my waist reduced to its proper dimension, I could do anything. Truly. Bound up stairs, sail through the air on my personal trapeze, even carry all three of my children on my back like a donkey.

So keep your 18-hour control top pantyhose, all you Westerners of the 21st century, as for me, I’ll remain forever virtuous and slender, laced into a corset that could hold back a swollen river in spring.

why my sister did not become empress of austria

after my engagement, my sister grew grumpier yet

Alas, poor Nené, my humorless sister.  As the eldest daughter in an inbred family full of loons, she was the only sane one and for all of her sanity, she very nearly became an old maid.

As you all know, I was “that little monkey” who was dragged to Bad Ischl as an afterthought that day in August, 1853.  The Emperor was not supposed to pay me any mind–I was a mere child, just fresh from the nursery.

My sister’s likeness preceded her introduction in the form of many a studio shot: sitting in a brocade parlor chair with lips pinched; gazing into space, sporting a fresh heart-shaped coif; on horseback with the strong, straight back our father demanded of us, but an expression that merely said, “this corset is digging into my ribs.”

In photographs, my sister’s face always looked sour and stern.  Her eyes squinted under heavy brow bones, her mouth, well, someone should have recommended more of a smile–(though, in her defense, none of us Wittelsbach woman ever smiled with teeth showing for our family curse included a mouthful of unsightly brown). And yet, had Helene been bubbly and animated in the flesh, she may still have been able to charm the young Emperor.  But, it was not the case.

helene, looking glum, glum, glum

Now, here’s where I came in.  Franz Joseph’s mother, the ever-meddling Archduchess, had decided that her son, the heir, would marry her sister Ludovica’s daughter, period. No one was more surprised than she (except, maybe, me) when he chose “the little monkey” instead of the more turned out, well-behaved elder girl.

Years later the Emperor shared his disappointment in how plain and stern my sister looked when first they met.  “No youth!  No joie de vivre!  You’d think, at eighteen, she was forty!”

It is true, Emperor Franz Joseph robbed the cradle by plucking a fifteen-year-old child from her nursery, but things were quite different back then.  For one, not only was I a child, I was also the Emperor’s cousin.  Ah!  But there was no child protective police in 19th Century Europe, so off to the Hofburg I went, leaving my elder, jilted sister to sulk for years to come–until she finally married a wealthy prince named Prince Max at the ripe old age of 24.

But here is the irony. My sad-faced sister was the only one among us to have a happy marriage in the end.  Go figure.