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Posts Tagged ‘empress eugenie’

winterhalterEver since she became an empress, Eugenie de Montijo feared Queen Marie-Antoinette’s fate. She was right to feel uneasy. Eighteen years into the reign and some eighty years after Marie-Antoinette’s head was severed under the guillotine, Eugenie ran in terror through the streets of Paris with a mob at her heels. The year was 1870 and the only friend the French empress found in her distress was her American dentist.

Eugenie doesn’t deserve her lack of fame. Who doesn’t know Marie-Antoinette and her horrible end? Who has never heard of Empress Josephine, the wife of Napoleon I? Both are legendary figures of the French history. One was executed; the other had to agree to a divorce. That the French had two more empresses, Marie-Louise and Eugenie, is a lesser known fact. Marie-Louise’s contribution to the French history was reduced to giving Napoleon his only legitimate heir, an heir that Josephine was unable to provide.  After the fall of the First Empire, Marie-Louise and her little son (who might have ruled as Napoleon II had he not died in the exile) went to live in her native Austria and neither saw France again.

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Napoleon III

With the Bonaparte family banished from the country, France went through two Bourbon kings and two revolutions to become, again, a republic. After 34 years in the exile, the Bonapartes were back, this time headed by Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, the nephew of Napoleon I. His four-year stint as an elected French president ended in 1852 with a coup d’état when he took what he considered rightfully his: the imperial crown. Henceforth, he was known as Napoleon III.

Generally, the French don’t like Napoleon III. They call him Napoleon le Petit and they say that he did nothing for the glory of France. They seem not to notice that their glorious Napoleon I turned Europe into a battlefield where he sacrificed an entire generation of Frenchmen and caused untold misery to people all over the continent from Spain to Russia. His nephew, on the contrary, was an achiever of another sort. Under his 18-year rule, France conquered the world with her culture and industry. He was the builder of Paris as we know it today, with the wide avenues and sanitary underbelly. He was a modern man in every sense and he truly cared for his people’s well-being.

Fortunately, the new emperor was a bachelor and he could hope to find a bride of royal blood to solidify his lofty position.  Unfortunately, he was also the slave of his hormones. While his emissaries were shopping for a suitable bride among the reluctant royal families of Europe—they all still smarted from the consequences of his uncle’s conquests—Napoleon III met the woman of his life and she was not a royal.

Even though Eugenie de Montijo was a stunning beauty, she would never have made the history books had she been only one of Louis Napoleon’s easy conquests. Let’s say it right here:  the man had a long list of bedroom adventures although he wasn’t averse to having sex in any other room, in any stationary or moving vehicle, or even in a haystack –  standing, sitting or laying down.  His sexual appetite was legendary and sometimes embarrassingly noticeable. His Majesty the Empereur was renamed by his sneering courtiers His Majesty the Ampleur.

In Eugenie he found a fortress to be conquered. The rules were laid down very early after the two met.  He was still the Prince-President of the French Republic, she the 26-year-old daughter of a widowed Spanish countess. He invited the two women for a weekend in a country chateau. As he was returning from a horse ride, he spotted Eugenie at one of the numerous windows. Not knowing the exact layout of the building, he called: “How do I get to you?” “Through the chapel, Sire,” she answered.

The siege of Eugenie lasted eleven months before her would-be-conqueror declared defeat. By that time France had, once again, become an empire with Louis Napoleon on the throne. Everyone, especially his family, expected him to do his duty by marrying a virginal princess. Instead, he presented them with a Spanish adventuress of dubious virtue. They were furious.  “But I love her,” he said simply.

Eugenie’s extraordinary resistance to seduction was explained during the wedding night.  She had no appetite for physical love. “Sex? Quelle saleté!” (Sex? What filth!) she was heard saying the next morning. Despite his wife’s attitude, the emperor remained faithful to her for a period of six months before he returned to his old habits. That did not sit well with the empress. She was very particular about her possessions and she would make an issue of a displaced pillow let alone of a displaced husband. The household was soon aware of her displeasure, most of all the emperor, who was forbidden access to the marital bed. But the pair had to produce an heir. A truce followed during which the task was accomplished. A lovely baby boy was born and given the title Prince Impérial. There were no other children. For the rest of the Napoleon III’s reign, the frigid Eugenie presided over one of the most debauched courts in history, a court where adultery was the norm and a one-night stand with the emperor a badge of honor.

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The Second Empire court at its zenith. A soiree at the Tuileries, 1867

By now the reader has reached the opinion that Eugenie was a gold-digger with a block of ice where her heart ought to have been. That is incorrect. Most of her life was spent in serious charitable endeavors. An early feminist, she was pushing for female education and advocating the recognition of women’s achievements in literature, arts, and education. That her efforts were largely unsuccessful was the fault of the society she lived in. The reforms she championed came too early.

As an empress, Eugenie was without reproach. Always courteous and elegant, she represented her country admirably, whether at home or abroad. Queen Victoria, favorably impressed, quickly became Eugenie’s intimate friend. Politically, Eugenie certainly had an influence on the emperor, especially when he was weakened by a disease in the last years of his reign.  The Bonapartes had many enemies; the most influential among them was the ultra-Republican Victor Hugo, author of Les Misérables. Acting from his exile, he bombarded the imperial pair with insulting pamphlets.  The mud stuck and Eugenie was blamed for everything that went wrong. Like Marie Antoinette, she was foreign and foreign queens were suspected of spying for their homeland and generally wishing ill to the French people.

The declaration of war on Prussia and the consequent debacle were entirely laid at her feet. While her husband, suffering from a debilitating pain, eagerly sought honorable death on the battlefield before surrendering to Bismarck, Eugenie refused to shoot into an angry mob that surrounded the imperial palace.  She chose to flee.  Alone, she tried several addresses before help was offered.  Her savior was Dr. Evans, her American dentist. The pair sneaked off to the coast where the empress, in strict incognito, boarded a ship for England.  As for Dr. Evans, he dined on the story for the rest of his life.

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The widowed Eugenie and her son in a Tissot’s painting, 1878

After the emperor’s comfortable imprisonment in the newly formed German Empire, the family is reunited in Camden Place, Chislehurst, southeast of London, to begin a life in the exile.  A plan for regaining his throne is certainly in the making when the emperor dies. From then on, Eugenie lives entirely for her son’s future. Not long after, tragedy strikes again: the prince, engaged in the war with the Zulus in South Africa, is slain by the savages.

The news makes the round of the planet. That his mother is devastated is understandable. oldBut the prince’s death crushed the hopes of numerous Bonapartists. It was generally understood that should the handsome prince claim the imperial crown it would be his for the taking. The grief in France could be compared to the one felt by the British when Princess Diana succumbed after the car accident. Husbandless and childless, Eugenie drags her sorrow through the rest of her long life. She dies in 1920 at the age of ninety-four.

Royal Collection

The memorial of the Prince Imperial in Zululand

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bertieThe year is 1855. An enthusiastic crowd lining the boulevards greets Queen Victoria with her husband Prince Albert and the French imperial couple, Napoléon III and the Empress Eugénie, as their open carriages progress across Paris. It is the first visit of a British ruler since 1431 and it has been a tremendous success on several levels. Both monarchs have become firm allies in the Crimean War, the term “entente cordiale” was coined between them, and lasting personal friendships have been born.

Albert is much taken with the elegant Eugénie. “Altogether I’m delighted to see how much he likes her and admires her,” the queen notes in her diary, “as it is so seldom that I see him do so with any woman.” Victoria herself is experiencing a pleasant electric current each time Napoléon III whispers endearments into her ear, compliments her on her dress or tickles the back of her hand with his moustache. No man had ever dared flirt with her and it is all so very French!

If the 10-day visit made such a good impression on the parents, the two children Victoria and Albert brought along were quite smitten. Vicky, the Princess Royal, broke into tears and pleaded for more time in France. Her 13-year old brother Bertie, the future king Edward VII, took a more direct action. The day he found himself alone with Napoléon III, he said: “You have a nice country and I would like to be your son.” When his proposal met with no success, he tried again, this time with Eugénie. “You parents cannot do without you,” she replied. “Not do without us?” Bertie exclaimed. “Don’t fancy that, for there are six more of us, and they don’t want us.”

The unloved Bertie grew up into a playboy. The Prince des Galles, as he was known in France, returned many times, enthusiastically sampling all the pleasures Paris could offer.

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Charles Frederic Worth 1826–1895

By an anonymous author

When Charles Frederick Worth died in 1895, telegraph carried the news around the world and orbituaries were published in thousands of newspapers. His family received telegrams of condolence from European royalty as well as from clients scattered on every continent. His funeral was attended by two thousand mourners, many of them people of high standing. A king was being laid to rest.

Born in 1825 in Lincolnshire, England, young Charles Worth was destined to become a solicitor like his father and grandfather. However, his father’s drinking and gambling ruined the family finances and when Charles was thirteen, his mother apprenticed him with a printer.

The job was dirty and boring, and a year later, the boy switched to a career in the drapery business. He became an apprentice at Swan and Edgar, drapers in London. To compensate for his lack of education, young Charles read current novels, and when an errand brought him to the vicinity of the new National Gallery, he often went inside. He studied attentively the historical styles of costumes in the paintings. Certain aspects of fashion, he noticed, came round in circles and this knowledge later helped him in refreshing his own designs.

At that time though, he had no other ambition than to succeed in the drapery business. When his seven-year apprenticeship was over, he recognized the need of completing his experience in Paris, the birthplace of fashion trends. In 1846, with no knowledge of the language, and only £5 in his pocket, he arrived in France. After two years of penury and odd jobs, he became a sales assistant at Gagelin, the best of Parisian mercers. He remained there for twelve years, eventually reaching the post of leading salesman in the shawls and mantles department.

Modeling the above articles had fallen to a pretty demoiselle de magasin and it was not long after that Charles Worth and Marie Vernet became an item. To display shawls at their best, Worth designed a few simple dresses for Marie and, soon, the clients became more interested in his creations than in the merchandise on sale. In 1850, he finally talked his employers into establishing a small dressmaking department in the store with a team of seamstresses and himself as the cutter.

The department prospered from the start. With his intimate knowledge of textiles combined with English tailoring techniques, Worth engineered gowns that fitted to perfection while taking into account the characteristics of the material. This was a new approach to dressmaking and Worth’s employers showed their appreciation by including several of his dresses at their exhibit during the Great Exposition in London in 1851. The dresses brought the firm of Gagelin a prize medal. Another medal followed in 1855 at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. Thus exposed to the public, Worth’s work brought an ever increasing number of customers to the Parisian firm.

By now Worth had married Marie, who was to give him two sons: Gaston (born in 1853) and Jean-Philippe (1856). One would think that following his success with dressmaking, his employers would do their best to keep him with the firm. Yet his demand for a partnership was refused and Worth, justifiably angry, teamed up with another disgruntled employee to open a new dressmaking establishment of Worth & Bobergh in rue de la Paix.

The timing was perfect. The net of railways spreading across Europe and the United States, coupled with fast steam ships, brought to Paris and unprecedented number of foreign visitors. Furthermore, the city was now the capital of the Second Empire with all the pomp and display attached to it. With a continuous round of state visits, ambassadorial functions, receptions, balls, and gala performances, the demand for sumptuous dresses escalated vertiginously. Heading the court was Napoléon III’s beautiful wife Eugénie, the arbiter in all matters of fashion.

Princess Metternich – an unlikely, but powerful herald of fashion

To attract attention of such an exalted personage, Worth needed an ally. He aimed at the Princess of Metternich, the wife of a new Austrian Ambassador. Vivacious, although not beautiful, the princess soon found her niche at the court and became a leading fashion-setter. At first, she found the idea of a male milliner utterly ridiculous–at the time, all dressmaking firms were headed by females–but seduced by the album of designs presented by Marie Worth, she finally ordered two dresses. The Empress saw them and Worth was made.

Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III

In 1864, Worth got the monopoly of supplying all evening and state wear for the empress and became the most expensive dressmaker in Paris. Following the empress’s example, other illustrious ladies flocked to his establishment. Worth’s dresses were worn in most Europeans courts but he also dressed the demi-monde. Princess or a highly paid tart, actress, or American millionairess, the Maison Worth was open to all in the spirit of financial democracy.

That a man should see strange women in their underwear, that he should touch their bodies, rankled with the moralists of the era. Enemies were many, but no critique, no moral indignation, could stop Worth’s meteoric rise. Never before had a simple dressmaker consorted with the high and mighty almost as an equal. Before an important ball or masque princesses, duchesses, and countesses came to rue de la Paix for inspection. They paraded before Worth while he decided on last minute changes, on the emplacement of a sash, or the angle of a headdress, and even approved the jewelry. His aim was to create a complete image. His were no longer dresses but “compositions” – too precious to be ruined by a wrong accessory. In an interview, he said:

Those ladies are wisest who leave the choice to us. By so doing they are always better pleased in the end, and the reputation of the house is sustained. Curiously enough, the persons who realize this fact most clearly are precisely those whom you might fancy the most difficult to please. For example, a telegram comes from the Empress of Russia, “Send me a dinner dress!” Nothing more. We are left absolute freedom as to style and material. Not that the Empress is indifferent in the matter of dress. Quite the contrary. She will sometimes require that all the ladies costumes at a certain ball be pink, or red, or blue. And her own dresses are always masterpieces of elegance. The point is that she trusts our judgment rather than her own. In the same way recently we have received over twenty telegrams from Madrid for ball dresses, and we shall make them as we think fit.

To order a dress at Worth’s was a simple procedure. Once the measurements were taken and a dummy made, the client only had to send in a request. With 1200 employees, he turned out hundreds of outfits a week and, if needed, he was able to deliver an elaborate ball gown within 24 hours.

Each time he wanted to launch a new fashion, he recruited his wife and the Princess Metternich. They would go to the races or another notable event wearing the new designs. Such was the prestige of the two women, that no other promotion was necessary.

The crinoline of the 1850’s and 1860’s was the greatest fashion aberration with the tight corsets of the 80’s and 90’s as second runners.

One of the greatest changes Worth executed was the abolition of the Second Empire crinoline. This absurd cage worn under wide skirts achieved such enormous proportions that the wearers could not function properly. By 1870, the crinoline was gone to be replaced by a bustle. The latter was a padding device attached to the waist. It supported an overskirt drawn to the sides and piled in folds over the bustle. The silhouette was still full but all the bulk was concentrated at the back.

Worth had grown enormously wealthy. He possessed a coat of arms and received guests of high standing in his sumptuous villa at the outskirts of Paris. Neither the events of Franco-Prussian War, nor the fall of the empire and the Commune uprising that devastated Paris had ill effects on his business. The court may be gone, but clients kept coming, keeping him busy to the end of his life. Many other male couturiers followed in his path, but none has achieved the sublime power Worth held over fashion for thirty-five years. He remains the true inventor of the Haute Couture.

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