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June 27, 2024

Empress Elisabeth of Austria’s Mourning Mask and Veil, 1889

Mourning mask and veil worn by Empress Elisabeth of Austria after the suicide of her only son, Crown Prince Rudolf, at his hunting lodge at Mayerling, 1889. The mask is made of black velvet with jet bead decoration and lace trim. It features a lace bonnet with ostrich feathers and an asymmetrical veil that extended down to her hips. After Rudolf’s death, Elizabeth dressed only in black for the rest of her life.

Looking more like a glistening raven-hybrid than a grieving woman, Empress Elisabeth’s mask is an unusual relic from the life of one of 19th century Europe’s most beautiful women. Renowned for her good looks and staggering beauty regime (oil baths, raw meat in her eye mask, vinegar soaked clothes, to name but a few habits), she at one point tight-laced herself into a corset of 16” circumference and would also go on to become a world-class equestrian. She had a restless mind, felt stifled by court life and would stay up all hours of the evening reading and writing, even taking up smoking to pass the time – a most unsavory habit for a woman of her standing. But her life was not all horse-riding and diamonds, she went on to experience great loss.

While she and her husband, Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria, had four children, only three made it to adulthood, as little archduchess Sophie died aged two, probably of typhus. One of their children was a boy, Rudolf, and as such was to take up his father’s position upon the latter’s death.

Rudolf married in 1881, and enjoyed a happy marriage for a few years, before the couple began to drift apart and Rudolf began to enjoy the company of other women and plenty of booze. Soon enough, both Rudolf and his wife Stephanie were diagnosed with gonorrhoea, rendering her sterile. This only sought to escalate Rudolf’s interest in other lovers, which reached a brutal fever pitch in 1889 in the now-infamous Mayerling Incident.

After purchasing the Mayerling hunting lodge in 1886, Rudolf enjoyed his time away from his wife and children, and by 1888 had met 17-year-old Baroness Marie von Vetsera with whom he began a deadly affair. On January 30th 1889, the pair were found together, dead in an apparent suicide pact, all out of love.

The double suicide caused carnage in the courts and a cover-up was attempted, with Marie’s body rushed into burial, where even her mother was prevented from attending. Looking at a wider picture, Rudolf’s death irreparably changed the course of world history. As Rudolf was the Emperor’s only son and heir to Austria-Hungary (as it was), the crown was up for grabs. In his place, the emperor’s brother, Karl Ludwig, would take up the position. However, Karl renounced his rights and passed on the succession rights to his eldest son, Franz Ferdinand. That would be the same Franz Ferdinand whose assassination in 1914 would kick start the outbreak of World War One.

Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth grieve over their son.

But back to Rudolf’s death. His mother, Empress Elisabeth (or ‘Sisi’) was heartbroken – Rudolf carried the legacy of their family, and he had died by his own hand, and with no children.

It was when grieving for Rufolf, that her most famous mourning dress was created. The dress and mask was designed by her favorite dressmaker Fanni Scheiner and is an enormous mass of velvet, lace, French jet glass beads and ostrich feathers. She displayed herself as grief personified and never recovered from the death of her son. Many claim that, like Queen Victoria, she never wore color again. The preservation and celebration of her mourning clothing seems somewhat fitting for a woman with such a sorrowful life.

While traveling in Geneva in 1898, the 60-year-old Elisabeth was fatally stabbed in the heart by an Italian anarchist named Luigi Lucheni. Her tenure of 44 years was the longest of any Austrian empress.

Today, many of her dresses are displayed at the Kunst Historisches Museum in Vienna, where lip balms and playing cards featuring her image can be bought in the gift shop.

(via Burials & Beyond)


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