Empress Elisabeth’s Mourning Mask

I’m no stranger to mourning clothing, nor do the rituals of grief and sorrow surprise me, but occasionally something will stop me in my tracks. The mourning mask and veil of Austria’s Empress Elisabeth is one such item.

Fanny Scheiner, Vienna c.1880
Imperial Carriage Museum Vienna
© KHM-Museumsverband

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 unsavoury 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.

Letters rediscovered in a safety deposit box in the 1920s reveal a clear motive from the young Marie:

Dear Mother
Please forgive me for what I’ve done
I could not resist love
In accordance with Him, I want to be buried next to Him in the Cemetery of Alland
I am happier in death than life

The farewell letter of Baroness Mary Vetsera to her mother. 
© ÖNB österreischische Nationalbib/AFP

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.

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 favourite 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 colour again. The preservation and celebration of her mourning clothing seems somewhat fitting for a woman with such a sorrowful life.

Elisabeth would die aged 60, murdered by anarchists while walking in Geneva.

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.


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