The Year of Empress Elisabeth – A slave to her hair




(public domain)

Empress Elisabeth of Austria’s hair became an obsession of hers over time, and it eventually grew down to her heels. She once stated, “I am a slave to my hair.”1  To manage it, Elisabeth hired a woman named Fanny Angerer. She found Fanny at the Burgtheater after she noticed the wonderful hairstyle of the leading actress Helene Gabillon. Fanny was hired for 2,000 fl a year to “devote herself to the most exalted service as imperial hairdresser.”2

Fanny not only knew how to do hair, but she also learned to deal with the eccentric Elisabeth. For example, she often hid combed-out hair on a piece of tape and soon earned the Empress’s complete trust. If Fanny was ill or unavailable, Elisabeth would refuse to appear in public. She took a personal interest in Fanny and helped Fanny to get married, even though this usually would have meant leaving court. Fanny was allowed to remain at court, and her husband was given a position as well. Fanny was also used as Elisabeth’s double from time to time as a result of her “faultless bearing.”3 Fanny eventually became arrogant and rude, and one lady-in-waiting complained of her “shamelessly playing the grand lady.”4 Fanny left court two years before the Empress’s death.5

fanny feifalik
Fanny (public domain)

Elisabeth’s hair was washed every three weeks – at first with precious essences until the preferred concoction became cognac and egg. Afterwards, it was rinsed with a “disinfectant.” Elisabeth then put on a long waterproof silk wrapper and walked until her hair was dry.6 In later life, she probably also dyed her hair with indigo and an extract made from walnut shells.7 The actual hairdressing could take up to three hours every day.

Archduchess Louise described the scene of hairdressing in her memoirs. “The Empress was really a lovely woman, and her hair was exquisite. When it was unbound, it simply enveloped her, and one maid was specially selected to dress it. The coiffure was carried out in rather a strange way. The carpet in the dressing-room was covered with white linen sheeting, and the Empress sat on a low chair in the middle of the room. The maid was dressed in white, and a most curious proceeding took place when the process was over of brushing and combing the luxuriant tresses and braiding them into the elaborate plaits affected by the Empress. The maid collected and counted every hair that remained in the brush and comb, and active search was also made on her dress and on the carpet for any hairs which had fallen out. The numbed was then told the Empress, who was exceedingly displeased if she thought too many hairs had come out during the “dressing”, and the maid had a mauvais quart d’heure in consequence.”8

sisi
(public domain)

Elisabeth’s Greek reader also described the scene. “Behind the Empress’s armchair stood the hairdresser (Fanny) in a black dress with a long train, a white apron of spider webs tied in front; though a servant herself, of an imposing appearance, with traces of faded beauty on her face, and eye filled with sinister intrigues… 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 mistress’s dead hair for inspection, and the looks of the mistress and her servant crossed for a second – containing a slight reproach in that of the mistress, guilt and remorse speaking in that of the servant. Then the white lace robe was lifted from the falling shoulders, and the black Empress, like the statue of a goddess, rose from the sheltering garment. Then the mistress lowered her head – the servant sank into the ground, softly whispering, ‘I lay myself at Your Majesty’s feet,’ and so the sacred ritual was completed.”9

Elisabeth told her reader, “I am aware of my hair. It is like a foreign body on my head.” He responded, “Your Majesty wears her hair like a crown instead of the crown.” To which she replied, “Except that any other crown is more easily laid aside.”10 The weight of her hair often caused headaches, and if she had headaches, her hair would be lifted up high with ribbons to decrease the weight on her head. Nevertheless, for Elisabeth, her hair was part of her allure, and she used the time the hairdressing took to learn languages.

  1. The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.135
  2. The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.134
  3. The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.135
  4. Elisabeth of Austria by Katerina von Burg p.248
  5. Neue Freie Presse
  6. My past by Countess Marie Larisch p.77
  7. Vienna’s Most Fashionable Neurasthenic: Empress Sisi and the Cult of Size Zero in Journeys into Madness: Mapping Mental Illness in the Austro-Hungarian Empire p.96
  8. My own story by Archduchess Louise of Austria p.51-52
  9. The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.137
  10. The reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann p.137






About Moniek Bloks 2253 Articles
My name is Moniek and I am from the Netherlands. I began this website in 2013 because I wanted to share these women's amazing stories.

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