The Right Chemistry: Royal's beauty routine was way ahead of her time

Married in 1853 at age 16, empress of Austria claimed to resent the public’s fixation on her looks and figure, but catered to it anyway.

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Long before the current obsession with anti-aging pills and regimens, there lived a royal who was obsessed with battling aging. She visited the sick, travelled the world, had affairs, suffered from depression, and was afflicted with an eating disorder. She also achieved great popularity with the common people who were captivated by her beauty. And no, I don’t mean Princess Diana. The woman in question was Elisabeth, empress of Austria, queen of Hungary, and affectionately known as Sisi. 

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Although virtually unknown on this side of the pond, at least until the Netflix series The Empress was released, in Europe she is an icon, the subject of books, movies and musicals. The Sisi Museum in the Hofburg, the former imperial palace of the Habsburg dynasty, is one of the most popular attractions in Vienna. 

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In 1853, 16-year-old Elisabeth accompanied her sister, who was to be presented to Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria with a view toward marriage as arranged by the pair’s mothers, who were sisters. The emperor, however, was smitten by Sisi and declared that if she was not the bride, there would be no marriage. It was thus that young Elisabeth became empress of the third-most populous monarchy in Europe, a position for which she was not prepared. 

Sisi did not enjoy the fawning masses that gathered whenever she appeared in public, and bristled at the etiquette the palace required. At 17, she gave birth to a baby that was immediately taken from her to be raised by her mother-in-law, who was also her aunt. That began a lifelong conflict, fuelled by her husband’s constant acquiescence to the wishes of his mother, who narcissistically had even named the infant princess Sophie after herself.

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Although Sisi claimed to resent the public’s fixation on her beauty and svelte figure, she nevertheless catered to it. She exercised by riding horses for hours and working out every day in a room she had equipped with hand rings, dumbbells and climbing bars, a regimen virtually unknown at the time.

It was all designed to maintain her famous waist at 19.9 inches with some help from the corset into which she was always painfully laced, and adherence to a diet with meagre caloric intake. For weeks at a time she would live on eggs, oranges and raw milk, at other times on just thin meat broth. Today she would probably be classified as anorexic.

On occasion, though, she would sneak out to Vienna’s famed Demel pastry shop for a treat of violet sorbet. Sisi’s medicine kit included cocaine and heroin, both legal at the time. She is said to have used the drugs for menstrual cramps.

Mornings began with a cold bath, predating the current fad among athletes, celebrities and social media influencers who claim to be energized by plunging into icy waters. Sisi also favoured “hay bathing,” a practice that had been “discovered” centuries earlier by Tyrolean farmers who found that their aches and pains lessened when they slept out in the field on a bed of grass or hay.

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Today, some spas in Austria and Italy feature “heubad,” the German term for “hay bathing.” Health benefits are attributed to the special grass and medicinal herbs that grow on mountain sides where they are harvested and turned into hay by storage in special wooden barns. It gives new meaning to the good old-fashioned roll in the hay! 

Curiously, given her emphasis on appearance, the empress did not use any sort of coloured cosmetics, believing that beauty should come from nature. She did, however, try to maintain the gifts nature had provided her by applying a paste made of strawberries to her face. This could actually have had some effect, since strawberries contain citric and salicylic acids, both of which are “hydroxy acids” that can exfoliate the skin and treat blemishes.

Foreshadowing developments in cosmetic science, Sisi had a special cream formulated with an inclusion of snail slime. It turns out that the mucus snails leave behind contains glycoproteins that are being studied for reducing signs of skin aging.

Despite scant evidence, cosmetic companies have already introduced dozens of creams and lotions that are touted as having anti-aging effects due to having snail mucus as an ingredient. Dare we say that the hype has not progressed at snail speed?

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At night, the empress would sleep with a leather mask that bound thin slices of veal to her face. No scientific studies have examined vealism for realism. 

Perhaps Sisi’s most distinguishing feature was her ankle-length, chestnut hair that she wore in elaborate braids designed by her personal hairdresser, Faini Feifalik. Combing and styling took three hours every day. That was nothing compared to the full day spent every three weeks on washing the tresses with raw eggs and brandy.

Again, there is some semblance of science here. Alcohol is a good solvent for grease, and eggs contain proteins that diffuse into the hair to strengthen strands. Lecithin in the yolk is an effective moisturizer. Faini performed another duty as well: since she resembled the empress, she would sometimes be sent out as a substitute when Sisi did not wish to fulfil royal obligations.

In court, Sisi was usually shunted aside by her mother-in-law, especially after two-year-old Princess Sophie died on a trip to Hungary, probably from typhus. Sisi was not fit to take care of a child, her mother-in-law had claimed.

The empress finally got some respect when she produced an heir, Prince Rudolf, allowing her to have a greater say in royal affairs. She had taken a fancy to Hungary, including to Count Gyula Andrassy, with whom she is said to have had an affair, and was instrumental in convincing Franz Joseph to create the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary in 1867.

Joe Schwarcz ([email protected]) is director of McGill University’s Office for Science & Society ( He hosts The Dr. Joe Show on CJAD Radio 800 AM every Sunday from 3 to 4 p.m.

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