Three mid-nineteenth century royal beauties served as the glamorous ideal for women in the Victorian Era. These three beauties were the Empress Eugénie (wife of Napoleon III, Emperor of the French), Princess Alexandra of Denmark (wife to Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, and heir apparent to Queen Victoria), and Elizabeth of Austria (wife to Franz Joseph I, Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary, and monarch of other states in the Austro-Hungarian Empire).
Newspapers, journals, and fashion magazines regularly referred to the three women. Portrait artists, such as the German painter Franz Xaver Winterhalter, known for his portraits of royalty in the mid-nineteenth century, also captured their beauty on canvas. However, what all Victorian women wanted to know was the beauty secrets of these three royal women.
Empress Eugénie was born on 5 May 1826 in Granada, Spain, and considered stunning. For instance, one biography described her as a “Queen of Beauty” and another biographer noted there was not a single flaw in her appearance. Otto von Bismarck, a conservative Prussian statesman who became the first Chancellor of the German Empire between 1871 and 1890, was struck by her beauty too. He met Napoleon III’s wife and consort for the first time in the grand vestibule of Compiègne Palace and was so enamored, he confessed to another statesman that he was dazzled beyond imagination as he had never seen such “feminine loveliness.” The Empress’s exquisiteness was also captured in a description given of her at the age of 27.
“The Empress Eugénie … was the loveliest woman of her time. She was of middle height, slightly and gracefully built, in complexion a blonde ardente. The dark blue eyes were shaded by long lashes, the golden hair lay in soft curls on the low white forehead. Well-marked eyebrows and drooping lids gave character to a faultless face. The nose was slightly arched, the cheeks and chin were firmly yet delicately moulded, the curved lips expressed refinement, gentleness, and sympathy. … Her shoulders, arms, and neck were the delight of artists, feet and hands were small and queenly.””
One thing the Empress Eugénie’s relied upon to enhance her beauty was fashion, but she wasn’t necessarily interested in fashion. Rather she was interested in obtaining work for those in the field of luxury goods, and, thus, she dressed like an Empress. Royal women often took a back seat when it came to fashion as that was something royal mistresses pursued, but in the case of the Empress Eugénie, she outshone all of Napoleon III’s mistresses. Moreover, Victorian woman loved her sense of style so much they copied her such as when she took a liking for artificial flowers in 1857 and a society was quickly established in Paris to create them.
The Empress was never one to embrace a lengthy toilette. However, she did keep up-to-date fashion wise because “at the beginning of each new season the Empress interviewed her chief dressmakers and milliners. Twice a year she went carefully through her wardrobe and presented to her ladies-in-waiting all the garments she could spare.” One historian reported that Eugénie’s fashion sense resulted in “great ladies … [being] swept away like all others on the stream of fashion. … In Paris every smart woman tried to walk and hold her head like the Empress.” She also inspired the fashionable greatcoat with bell sleeves, known as the Eugénie paletot, and she was one of the first to adopted corkscrew curls and powder her hair with gold. Moreover, “among minor useful fashions which the Empress introduced were the fringe-net, the en-tout-cas, and the coloured under-petticoat.”
The Empress was not conceited, cared little for the commotion her looks caused, and as her beauty was inherited, it required little work on her part. However, one beauty secret was cosmetics. To obtain them she patronized the shop of Pierre-Francois-Pascal Guerlain, a perfumer and purveyor of smelling salts, who found Guerlain in 1828 in Paris. When his shop opened, it was an immediate success and the Empress became his star patron. She also developed a reputation for having wonderfully translucent and radiant skin that one person described as “brilliant, light, clear.” Her complexion also inspired the creations of many beauty products and talk of her phenomenal complexion was so commonplace, several sharp marketers of the 1880s developed beauty creams named for her. One was “Eugenie’s Secret of Beauty” and another was “Creme Impératrice” specifically designed to help whiten a woman’s hands, neck, and décolletage.
Princess Alexandra of Denmark
Of the three royal beauties of the mid-nineteenth century, Queen Alexandra, was said to be the “least showy,” which was also one of her beauty secrets. This simplicity, or lack of showiness, was reported by one of her contemporaries to be “the key-note to her attire, and it is by her influence that the well-made cloth gown and the small bonnet have retained their hold so long in the fashionable world.” However, like Empress Eugénie, the Princess Alexandra also possessed great fashion sense. She was also extremely photogenic and clever in using minor physical disadvantages to her benefit.
“[S]he had a scar on her neck which she covered by wearing various forms of stylish neckwear … and the wide ‘choker’ necklace which was popular from the 1880s into the Edwardian period.”
The Princess had several other secrets that helped her to retain her title as one of the most beautiful women of the mid-nineteenth century. For instance, she was fond of exercise and liked walking, yachting, and driving, which may have contributed to her retaining her trim and youthful figure. She was also not shy about using cosmetics on a daily basis, and, in fact, she regularly endorsed the cosmetics that were found sitting on her dressing table.
“Women were sanctioned to use any artifice they chose; this was an age when it was acceptable to emphasize the cleavage between a lady’s breasts with shadows made by brown powder.”
Princess Alexandra’s effect on fashion was so profound women even copied what some people might have considered to be a drawback. It was her limp. She acquired it in 1867 after suffering an illness that “threatened to contract her leg and make her a cripple.” Thus, whenever she appeared in public she used a walking stick and exhibited a slight limp. Her infirmity was soon copied by “distinguished people, and the ‘Alexandra limp’ was adopted by various members of fashionable society!”
Although fashion conscious women might have copied the Princess’s limp, perhaps, the most prized beauty secret of the Princess Alexandra was her goodness. America’s leading women’s magazine that was first published in 1883 and called Ladies Home Journal, pointed out this attractive quality of the princess in an article published in March of 1891:
“She [Princess Alexandra] has that marvelous art of making goodness seem attractive; of making the right act the pleasant one and of impressing upon all who know her the knowledge that to do good is to have a pleasant time, and not to do it is to miss some of the pleasure of life. Many princesses have been written about as having been beautiful, as having caused great wars, as having done great deeds of value, of having made men die for them and kingdoms quarrel over them, but of none of them can it be said, as it is of this gracious lady, that the whole world bows down before sweetness and goodness, that peace has been the watchword of her life.”
Empress Elisabeth of Austria
On 24 April 1854, 16-year-old Elisabeth became the Empress Elisabeth when she married Franz Joseph. Like Empress Eugénie and Princess Alexandra, Empress Elisabeth was lauded for her striking beauty and youthful figure. About ten years later, in 1864, the Empress attended the wedding of her brother, and according to her brother-in-law, she outshone the bride. He reported that “[she was] stunningly beautiful … the people here acted insane. I have never seen anyone having such an effect before.”
Because of her stunning beauty and youthful figure, the Empress Elisabeth became obsessed with maintaining them as she aged. It was regularly noted that although she was 5 feet 8 inches tall, she still weighed about 110 pounds after four pregnancies. To maintain such trimness one person reported that she preserved the “suppleness” of her figure by taking ” warm baths of olive oil,” although once the oil was allegedly so hot she almost boiled to death. She also exercised regularly, fasted, and dieted upon oranges and veal juice or extracts of raw meats.
Another of her beauty secrets was related to her long, cascading, and thick tresses. She considered her hair to be her crowning glory and worked hard to maintain it. In her vigilance, she spent an inordinate amount of time caring for her hair.
“Every three weeks it was washed with raw eggs and brandy, a procedure which took an entire day, including drying … Without washing and setting it took three hours each day to dress her hair.”
Empress Elisabeth’s Greek tutor, Constantin Christomanos, described in his diaries the daily three-hour ritual required to dress her hair. He also noted that while she engaged in this activity, he taught her Greek. He stated that the hair dressing ritual began after she sat at a table in the center of the room wearing a lace embellished white gown with her loosened hair enveloping her and touching the floor.
“Behind the Empress’s armchair stood the hairdresser … With her white hands she burrowed in the waves of hair, raised them and ran her fingertips over them as she might over velvet and silk, twisted them around her arms like rivers she wanted to capture because they did not want to run but to fly … Then in a silver bowl she brought her mistresses dead hair for inspection.”
The Empress did not neglect her face either. She regularly used masks containing eggs, strawberries, or rose petals. When she could not obtain those items, she resorted to a beauty mask of raw veal, which she kept in place throughout the night by wearing a leather mask. However, facial masks were not the only products she used. She also relied upon mists. They were created from rose or lavender combined with vinegar and distilled water, which she spritzed on her face to fight infection or protect against inflammation.
Empress Eugénie, Princess Alexandra of Denmark, and Elizabeth of Austria helped shape Victorian women’s ideas of beauty. Fashion sense, proper diet, goodness, fitness, cosmetics, limps, and hair and facial regimes were just some of the items Victorian women copied from them. One Victorian newspaper also claimed that beauty and royalty went to together and was necessary because it was “part of the profession of royalty to marry such a person.” The article continued:
“The Prince of Wales has married a very pretty woman. The Emperor of the French has married one of the most handsomest women in Europe. … The Empress of Austria is under a sort of duty to be worth looking at, and, being pretty, she can help her husband at the moment of political crisis. Democracy has many excellencies, but this particular advantage it does not possess.”
-  Jane T. Stoddart, The Life of the Empress Eugenie (London: E. P. Dutton & Company, 1906), p. 53.
-  Ibid., p. 184.
-  Ibid., p. 181.
-  Ibid., p. 184.
-  The Ladies’ Home Journal, v. 7-8 (March 1891): p. 2.
-  Aileen Ribeiro, Facing Beauty: Painted Women & Cosmetic Art (New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 2011), p. 244.
-  Sharon Romm, The Changing Face of Beauty (Mosby Year Book, 1992), p. 226.
-  The Young Englishwoman (London: Ward, Lock, and Tyler, 1875), p. 507.
-  Herbert Norris and Oswald Curtis, Nineteenth-century Costume and Fashion v. 6 (Dover Publications, 1933), p. 165.
-  The Ladies’ Home Journal, p. 2.
-  Jennifer Bowers Bahney, Stealing Sisi’s Star: How a Master Thief Nearly Got Away with Austria’s Most Famous Jewel (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, Incorporated Publishers, 2015), p. 65.
-  Isle of Wight Times, “An Empress’s Aids to Beauty,” June 5, 1913, p. 2.
-  Ludwig Merkle, Sissi: The Tragic Empress – The Story of Elizabeth of Austria (Munich: Stiebner, 2003), p. 48.
-  Brigitte Hamann, The Reluctant Empress: A Biography of Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Faber & Faber, 2012)
-  Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, “Royalty and Beauty,” December 27, 1865, p. 3.
-  Ibid.