Probably the aesthetics of the 19th century ball gowns will be always associatively related to creations of Charles Frederick Worth and also with portraits that were painted by Franz Xaver Winterhalter. During the middle of the 19th century there was an era of opulence, when flourished the cult of luxury and splendor of ball gowns that have not yet been seen. A great role in this atmosphere was given to the famous Sissi...
Elisabeth of Bavaria (1837 - 1898) was Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary since marriage to Emperor Franz Joseph I.
She was a legendary beauty of the century. No less famous is her ball gown, which is seen in the portrait by Winterhalter (1865). Many portraits that were painted by Winterhalter portray the ballroom gowns that were made in the House of Worth, as both artists were close to European courts.. But this one is especially famous. It has become a symbol of the whole age.
Epitome of the 19th Century Ball Gown
What exactly is the essence of 19th century ball gown?
It is important to note that all the most important details are shown in Elizabeth's ball gown. Therefore, I invite you to look at it more closely.
A typical ball gown of that time traditionally was a full-skirted gown reaching the ankles, made of luxurious fabric, delicately and exotically trimmed. Most ball gowns were cut off the shoulder with décolleté necklines. The Victorian version of décolleté neckline was cut low on the shoulders. Since then this neckline became a traditional component of evening dresses and ball gowns. The ball gown shape has changed little since the middle of 19th century. And it was also an era of crinolines that made a difference.
Ball gown of the century that was painted by Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1865) has immortalized not only Empress Sissi, but also international reputation of Charles Frederick Worth. He was famous for clothing the fashionable and wealthy elite of the 19th century. One of his gowns is represented in this court portrait of the wife of Franz Joseph I, Elisabeth of Austria, who was both Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary. The portrait was painted during the Second Empire of Napoleon III and it still is reflecting glamour and epitome of era when half-crinolines were worn (see the image below).
Elisabeth was a noted beauty, who accentuated her extreme slenderness through the practice of tight lacing. Corsets of the time were split-busk types, fastening up the front with hooks and eyes, but Elisabeth had more rigid, solid-front ones made in Paris out
of leather, known as grandes cocottes.
In her youth Elisabeth followed the fashions of the age, which for many years, during 1850s were cage crinoline era. As soon as fashions began to change, she was at the forefront of abandoning the hoop skirt for a tighter and leaner silhouette. She never wore petticoats as they added bulk, and she was often literally sewn into her clothes to emphasize the "wasp waist" that became her hallmark.
When Winterhalter painted this portrait, Elisabeth's waist span was 45, 5 to 48 cm which emphasizes the enormous volume of the skirt that she is wearing. The half crinoline also reached its greatest width during this time. It was also Worth's credit for crinoline culminating in the 60's of the 19th century. Fashion historian James Laver has drawn a parallel between the excess of the crinoline and those of the Second Empire itself, which was a time of material prosperity, extravagance and dubious morality. (Fashion - the whole story, p. 177.)
The most important details in Elizabeth's ballroom dress and her image
Elisabeth's hair is parted at the center front and then crowned with a twisted braid, which is allowed to fall down the back. It was a typical festive hairstyle of the half crinoline era. But unusual and legendary was its adornment. Diamond stars are threaded through the hair creating an informal tiara.
Lightweight fabric and adornment of dress:
A layer of tulle - a sheer fabric which is seemingly applied to the voluminous pleated skirt of the dress, drifts over the bodice... The dress itself is embroidered with stars to match the hair adornment. A further length of tulle is draped around the waist.
The white satin dress has a deep off-the-shoulder décolletage that ends in a tulle frill from which the short, puffed sleeves emerge.
As it is known, this detail characterizes ball gowns from the 60's of the 19th century.
Fans were not simply a cooling devices for overheated ballrooms in the 19th century...Since it became a fashion accessory in 16th century, it was also a decorative item deployed in flirtation. The folding fans came into Europe from East Asia, but folding fans were the part of inspiration that came from Japan.
Diamond Stars In Her Hair....
And finally...The Stars!
Sisi's stars were the most famous jewels that Empress Elisabeth wore in her hair. Empress Elisabeth ordered a set of twenty-seven stars made of diamonds and pearls from the Vienna jewelers Köchert and Pioté. She gave some of the stars to her ladies-in-waiting, while the rest were left to members of her family. Sisi’s stars are immortalized in the well-known portrait which Franz Xaver Winterhalter painted of the Empress. This famous hair adornment worn by Empress is currently in the collection of Schloß Schönbrunn, Vienna, Austria.
And..the testimonies of this legend still are romantic details of the past...
References & further reading:
Fashion - the whole story. (general editor: Marnie Fogg). - Thames & Hudson, 2013.
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My name is Edīte Parute and I am a fashion historian and researcher from Latvia, association member at "The Association of Dress Historians" (UK) and author of the book "Stila un modes enciklopēdija"/"Encyclopedia of Style and Fashion" (2010) as well as author of many publications.