The 12-step Sissi lifestyle plan

I recently got round to visiting an exhibition in Berlin dedicated to one of my favourite proto-goth oddballs, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, a.k.a.. Sissi. Though small, it went some way to deconstructing the myths associated with Franz Joseph’s Bavarian-born consort. It was Sissi’s fanatical dedication to her own beauty which stood out, beauty which she worshipped “like a heathen his idols,” according to her niece. Looking out from official portraits with her radiant skin, torrents of chestnut hair and tiny waist, Her Imperial and Royal Apostolic Majesty seems to be saying “this doesn’t just happen, you know”. And it really, really didn’t: maintaining it all was a full time occupation.

The exhibition offered a few of Sissi’s patented skin creams to try on but overall it was disappointing when you think of what a truly immersive exhibit could offer: fun house mirrors for instant anorexia, crowds of virtual commoners for the visitor to haughtily ignore, computer-generated verse in the style of Sissi’s own angsty emo poetry. So if you really want to Sissi up your life, you’re going to have to do it yourself. Luckily with this lifestyle makeover you’re just 12 steps away from imperial and royal apostolic fabulosity:

  1. Be nuts
    You may already be one of the millions of people suffering from Sissi Syndrome, a “lifestyle malady” which was “discovered” in 1998 and said to be characterised by inner emptiness masked by restless activity and the quest for physical perfection. That’s according to global pharmaceutical giant SmithKline Beecham, anyway, who – what luck! – also manufacture the “cure”. Apparently 3 million Germans suffer from Sissi Syndrome, but it was discredited by independent studies as “an invented disorder”. So while you can file it under “made-up shit to sell drugs”, it’s an appropriately modern homage to a woman whose life was bankrolled by the dying absolutism of the previous century but whose pathologies looked forward to the next…
  2. Hit the gym

    © Schloß Schönbrunn Kultur- und Betriebsges.m.b.H.

    …and the exercise equipment which Sissi had installed in her Vienna apartments was just one sign of a sensibility which seems so much closer to our age than her own. This was one of the first private gyms in the world, where Sissi would work out for up to an hour a day in full corsetry.

  3. Don’t have children
    Well of course Sissi did fulfil her dynastic obligation and have children, four of them in fact. But she was disgusted by childbearing, and never more rigorous with her diet and exercise than after a pregnancy. If left to her own devices there is little doubt that she would have remained childless.
  4. Drink raw veal juice
    I haven’t eaten meat since 1993 and frankly I’d rather not know how exactly you juice veal, but this vile-sounding brew was just one of the quack diet potions which Sissi embraced.
  5. Keep moving
    As well as her constant travels around Europe, Sissi would walk, obsessively, for hours at a time, or ride manically through the countryside. She desperately tried to outpace the pounds which refused to slip away as easily as they did in her youth. Her intensive regime was driven by depression as much as anything, but the black dog kept to her heels.
  6. Eat sorbet
    As a young woman Sissi had a hearty appetite, but in later years she existed for long stretches on fruit, sorbet and milk to maintain her extraordinary 16-inch waist. One of the exhibits was a starched cloth garment I originally took for a large collar; it turns out it was meant to adorn her midriff.
  7. Eat nothing
    You’re serious about this, right? Put down the fork, tubster. In her most extreme phases, Sissi exhibited what we would now regard as anorexia. She was renowned for her figure though it fell short of the zaftig proportions favoured by the age. Nothing, not even the empress’s beloved violet bon-bons, tasted as good as skinny felt.
  8. Wrap up
    Sissi’s pores, at least, enjoyed a healthy diet. She wrapped herself in face masks of strawberries, honey and raw veal (again with the veal!) while she subjected herself to hot olive oil baths and body wraps of seaweed, sand or hay.
  9. Wear black
    Sissi was enmeshed in grief for much of her life with loved ones dying at an alarming rate, and as protocol dictated she went into mourning for her son Rudolf, who died in a murder-suicide with his mistress in 1889. But when she was assassinated on this day in 1898 she was still in black, having no doubt discovered its slimming qualities in the interim.
  10. Take some time for haircare (three hours a day should do it) Care of Sissi’s tumbling locks required a complicated ceremony of combing, brushing and massaging performed by gloved attendants who placed a white sheet on the floor to catch any stray hairs, which were subsequently catalogued and presented to the empress in a silver dish. Once a fortnight the floor-length tresses were washed in egg yolks and cognac.
  11. Avoid commoners
    Sissi’s self-absorption eventually became so all-consuming that she barely even saw her husband let alone his subjects. To live in exile in a fantasy world and maintain her mystique meant not exposing herself to the judgment of the rabble. Unlike Diana, Sissi’s vanity didn’t require others to regard her as good or virtuous, and despite her isolated acts of impulsive charity she didn’t see herself as the People’s Empress any more than the people did. Her occasional visits to mental institutions and cholera hospitals had as much to do with ghoulishness as compassion.
  12. Avoid the paparazzi
    One of the very few photos of Sissi in later years shows her on horseback with a fan shielding her face. So frustrated were photographers in their attempts to snap the aging empress that they were reduced to painting wrinkles on photos from her heyday; a kind of reverse Photoshopping. Once again Sissi was way ahead of her time, gripped as she was by a very contemporary amalgam of compulsive narcissism and obsessive secrecy. When it came to aging, her attitude was: pics or it didn’t happen.
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33 comments

  1. Linda Hollandere

    Many years ago, I saw the ensemble she was wearing on the day she was assassinated. The knife blade made a rather small slash in the silk, but the thing I remember most was that she was so tightly corseted that no one knew she had been stabbed until she was being readied for sleep (this according to the curatorial placard on the wall of the Met in NYC). When the servant removed her corset, she bled to death. This could not have taken very long, but alas, the card did not “go deep”.

    Also, I beleive she was the sister of the Duchesse d’Alencon, who died in the Charity Bazaar in Paris in 1897 — it’s no damn wonder she wore black all the time!

    • Indeed, and the very same fire where Lorrain claimed that Montesquiou had struck women out of his way in his rush to escape (when in fact he was nowhere near).
      It’s quite something when you actually lay eyes on the dimensions of her waist, isn’t it? I don’t know where she put all her internal organs.

  2. What an outstanding post! Bravo!!

    Elisabeth and Ludwig were two peas in a fabulously wealthy and dysfunctional pod, weren’t they?

    As a youth, I did, in fact, suffer from Sissy Syndrome, but I’ve since learned to “make it work”.

  3. Wanda

    Wonderful stuff! A new take on the Myth of Sissiphus….

  4. “Elisabeth and Ludwig were two peas in a fabulously wealthy and dysfunctional pod, weren’t they?”

    Those who have little command of history, often want to depict the two as a couple. This disturbs their descendants greatly, I am told.

  5. Nice post. I liked the photo with the dog. She really was a “strange flower”.

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  7. Lisbeth

    I do not like this envious, evil, stupid post. Perhaps she was a “strange flower” in a completely different angle. This article did not picture Elizabeth in the correct way, the writer just misled people. It seems the writer has his own impression only about an already dead royal woman whom he doesn’t like. 😉 And the most important word is the “royal”. 😉 These steps are ridiculous I wish the writer could follow it. 😉 Or could you please stop writing? It would be nice step. Thank you.

  8. Pingback: Phantom of the empire (repost) « Strange Flowers

  9. Roger Walker

    Why would anyone advising a writer about content lumber up the suggestion with “smiley” faces?

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  12. Becky

    I loved it, personally. It wasn’t meant to be a book, it is interesting information, thanks!

  13. amanda

    Read more about real facts. There are nice books around about her real life such as “The Reluctant Empress” by Brigitte Hamann

    • Your comment implies that my post contains falsehoods. You can criticise my interpretation or approach all you want, but if you want to accuse me of inventing facts I suggest you provide some hard evidence. I’ve read Hamann’s book and several others concerning Sissi, and if you look at my numerous posts on the subject I think you’ll find I know what I’m talking about.

  14. amanda

    Yes, you are right. I apologise. Your facts are correct. I guess I don’t like the superficial way you have portrait the whole thing. Being married as a child and having the children stolen by the mother-in-law is not exactly a good tip to look fabulous. But I guess it is positive that you have managed to write a funny story out of this…

    • Thanks for your comment. I agree that Sissi’s life was marked by tragedy, and along with the trauma of being thrust so young into a role she never wanted it is hardly surprising that she exercised such control over herself. There are numerous ways to depict this extreme behaviour and this was a self-consciously light approach, but hopefully my other posts present a more well-rounded, sympathetic picture.

  15. You are under absolutely no obligation to be sympathetic, nor to respond to idiotic comments, IMO. The kind of people who are so full of themselves (well, chiefly hot air) as to post such ridiculous complaints wouldn’t have the first idea how to be even half as entertaining & insightful as you are on a continual basis! ♥

  16. .CEM-L-G

    As a Royal historian and writer, you had me at “favourite proto-goth oddballs”.
    I laughed out loud.
    Kuuuuuudos!

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  18. Caroline

    I found this article to be charming and intelligent and humorous! Thanks.

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  20. corrinaconnor

    ‘Lisbeth’ seems to have suffered a terminal sense of humour failure.

  21. Christine

    Very harsh commentary. She adored Franz but the devastation of an STD he gave her just about broke her. She adored her babies but her MIL, Sophie took them away from her immediately. Perhaps her bizarre beauty routines came from a desire to make Franz see her in love. Tragic lifer. Married for love but ignored most of it.

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