I have been pretty much obsessed with Sisi – Empress Elisabeth of Austria (1837-1898) – ever since I first saw her portrait in Vienna four years ago. Stunningly beautiful, with a tiny waist that even four pregnancies could not alter, a perfectly oval face, delicate features and sparkling eyes, it is not surprising that she was often compared to Titania, the fairy queen.
How beautiful she is!” exclaimed the Shah of Persia when he first met her, abandoning all protocol. But then protocol was not something that ever bothered this non-conformist who was the most legendary beauty of her times and left a heritage of skincare and haircare that is indispensable even today. Actually, especially today.
Sumptuous skincare secrets
Have I mentioned that Sisi was really, really beautiful? And that her skincare went from the romantic to the bizarre? Some of these recipes are simply decadent, like the strawberry face mask, while others are a bit gross, such as the raw veal she applied on her skin at night or the slug cream, which took more than 12 hours to make! For our purposes, we shall stick to the more can-do-in-the-21st-century-home stuff here.
Olive Oil Bath: Sisi took a warm olive oil bath every evening to keep her skin soft and smooth – a practise that’s lauded by spas till date. Olive oil contains vitamins A and E, which are intensely nourishing, along with a host of antioxidants that guard against environmental toxins. To make your own olive oil bath, simply pour a cup-full of warm, extra-virgin olive oil in the bathtub and fill with warm water. Or slather your body with warm (not hot) olive oil, leave it on for 5-10 minutes, then rinse off with warm water.
Face Mists: Sisi relied heavily on rose or lavender face mists to protect her skin against inflammation and infections. Her favorite was violet vinegar, made from freshly picked violet blossoms, cider vinegar and distilled water: Layer the violet blossoms (or rose petals) into a bellied bottle and douse them with cider vinegar. Shut tightly and allow to infuse for two days. Then filter through a sieve and press out the blossoms with a wooden spoon. Take some distilled water and stir violet powder (or powdered rose petals) into the mixture until smooth. Add it to the distilled water and shake thoroughly together.
Hay Wraps: The Austrian Empress also enjoyed full body wraps made out of hay. Ironically, a number of luxury spas are now offering this as a “brand new” and “innovative” ritual to that fortifies the immune system and boosts metabolism!
Egg White Face Mask: A really simple and effective way of toning the complexion, Sisi’s favorite face mask needs 2 oz rose water, 1 oz milk, ½ oz press-pressed grape juice, 2 quintchens crushed frankincense and 2 whipped egg whites. Combine all ingredients, except the egg whites. When everything is well mixed, fold in the egg whites and immediately apply the paste to your face and hands. Go to bed and rinse off in the morning. Sisi believed (and modern-day dermatologists agree) that if you use this mask thrice weekly for a fortnight, you will be closer to a peaches-and-cream complexion.
Honey & Strawberry Face Pack: To keep her complexion soft, Sisi would slather her cheeks with pure honey and crushed strawberries – thereby calling upon the effects of modern fruit acids that cleanse, exfoliate and brighten the skin. And that’s not all: this face pack also reinforces the skin’s resistance to environmental stress and strengthens its immunity.
Rose Cream (my personal favourite!): History says that Sisi never left home without this rosy moisturizer. To prepare, crush 20-25 rosebuds and simmer them in a covered pan filled with 1/8th litre distilled water for 45 minutes. Add 50g lanolin and 20g fresh, unsalted butter to the concoction; then put everything in a high speed blender till it forms a creamy consistency. Keep in the fridge and apply to your face every morning for glowing skin.
Veal Face Mask: Sisi applied slices of raw veal to her face during the night, binding it with a leather mask that kept the meat in constant contact with her skin while sleeping. Gross as this sounds, dermatologists say that it’s ”not half bad”. The high vitamin C content has an anti-inflammatory effect, while the protein element (keratin) acts against skin ageing. Moreover, the meat gives skin a fresh look and neutralises harmful metabolites (free radicals). Lady Gaga, are you listening?
Slug Cream: Again gross but it’s already making a comeback, with celeb proponents swearing by its skin-smoothing benefits. I have even found the original recipe for you: Put ½ kilo lard into water-bath, add 2 quintchen (fifths) marshmallow roots and 70g ground slugs. Let it stand for four hours to cool off. And then hop in! Weird much?
Intrigued? Here is a place where you can buy raw veal; the slugs you will have to collect from your own garden.
Crowning glory… in royal style
Sisi’s ankle-length hair was her pride and joy, even though it was so long and heavy that the weight often gave her headaches. She would sit on a low chair and a silk cloth would be placed beneath her hair while it was brushed. Then her hair dresser would comb and style the tresses into elaborate ‘dos. After dressing, braiding and pinning for hours, each one of the fallen strands had to be presented in a silver bowl to the Empress for inspection. This operation would last almost three hours, during which time Sisi kept herself busy by learning languages such as Hungarian and Greek.
Washing her hair was another very time consuming operation, performed every fortnight with a mixture of cognac and egg yolk. Considering the length and volume of her tresses, it’s no wonder that it took the empress an entire day to complete this ritual! Sigh… for such luxury!
Next, the royal coiffure was sprinkled with jewels – the most famous of which are the diamond stars made by the court jeweller Koechert. Finally, Sisi’ tresses were sprayed with Creed’s Fantasia de Fleurs EDP – a heady and ebullient floral fragrance created specially for the empress. An exceptional blend, it contained a regal bouquet of the best Bulgarian roses and Florentine irises to evoke an intoxicating stroll through the secret garden of the queen’s inner court.
Of 19-inch waists…
Sisi had a tiny 19-inch waist (gulp!), maintained with extremely rigorous exercise. The Empress was obsessed with gymnastics, which attracted a lot of criticism as women of this era simply did not sweat. She even had a gymnastics room installed at her palace and could often be seen dangling from the rings!
The Austrian empress also took up fencing in her 50s. A fervent horsewoman, she rode every day for hours on end, becoming the world’s best female equestrian at the time. When she could no longer endure hours in the saddle due to gout, Sisi went for very long walks that could last up to 10 hours!
At night, she was heavily massaged and slept with cloths soaked in either violet or cider vinegar to preserve her slim waist, while her neck was wrapped with cloths soaked in Kummerfeld-toned washing water. In the last years of her life, Sisi became even more obsessive, weighing herself up to thrice a day. She began to live on a diet of meat juice, fresh milk and egg whites. Well! Think of it this way – if Sisi had been a Page 3 celeb today, she might have lived off coffee and cocaine. But since this was the 19th century, she survived on the squeezed juices of steak. In her later years, she ate mostly sorbets, which I like to imagine were made with fruit.
However, Sisi did have one indulgence! Despite her strict steak-juice drinking, sorbet-snacking habits, the Empress would wander through to Demel for boxes of candied violets. Today, she’s still immortalized on many boxes in Vienna. And in our hearts. Beautiful, extravagant, sweet and gracious, she was a woman way ahead of her times who spent her life yearning for a measure of happiness but never found it. She would have been happier married to a minor princeling but it was her fate to be Empress of Austria. Today, the world remembers her as one of history’s most fascinating and beautiful women. Her life story has been the subject of several books, movies (including a hugely popular trilogy starring Romy Schneider) and a long-running musical. But I wonder if that’s consolation enough for a life only half-lived?