Sisi's Gala Gown Research

8/24/2017

I remember when I first saw the famous portrait of Empress Elisabeth of Austria, better known as Sisi. It was a stock photo used in a picture frame my mom bought for me. I had originally planned to put a picture of my own in it, but I loved the picture that was in it already and never changed it. It sat on my desk for years before I finally took it down and put the frame in storage.

The dress she wears in the portrait quickly went on my mental bucket list of costumes I wanted to one day make when I had the skill. That stock photo lead to my interest in Sisi, and she remains one of the most fascinating historical figures to me. She had such an interesting life that ended tragically with her murder in 1898. There's a wonderful German musical about her life called Elisabeth Das Musical. If you speak German or don't mind looking up translations, I highly recommend listening to it.

The famous painting of Empress Elisabeth (Sisi) by Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1865)

Back to the portrait, or rather the dress. After Costume College last year I got it into my head that this dress would make a perfect Gala gown. However, I wasn't able to attend this year and I didn't start the dress. After CoCo ended this year I heard that next years theme is Dressing the Royals. Could the timing be any more perfect?

I'm not sure if I'll be able to attend CoCo next year, as I have a lot going on the next several months and am not sure if it will work out schedule wise or financially, but I've decided to take the first steps in creating this dress starting with the research.

Winterhalter's sketch for the famous star dress portrait of Sisi


This has been a difficult dress to research, because the portrait is the only real reference there is for the dress and there's a lot of unknowns. But here's what I do know:

  • The dress was worn in 1865 to a gala event (though I still can't find out what gala event it was)
  • The dress was designed and made by Charles Worth
  • The dress was likely only worn once and is no long extant (existing)
That's not a lot to go on.

I've been asking around on some costuming groups and here's what I found:
  • The gold "stars" were likely embroidered of gold thread
  • Worth was a big fan of tulle, so there's likely tons and tons of silk tulle in this dress
There have been various reproductions of this dress, from the German musical I mentioned early to the 1955 movie titled "Sissi". This dress also served as inspiration for one of Christine Daae's iconic dresses in the film version of The Phantom of the Opera (2004)

Left, Elisabeth Das Musical; Middle Sissi (1955); RightThe Phantom of the Opera (2004)
I was chatting with my friend Michaela about this dress, she knows a lot more about 1860's fashion than I do, and we were talking about the color of the gown. The painting is likely romanticized in a lot of the details, one of which is the color. The lighting in the painting is very warm and makes the dress look like an off white/cream color, but in the 1860's white gowns were just that, white. Crisp white.

I decided that I really like the romanticized version of the dress, so I've decided that when I do make it I will make it to look more like the painting than what the actual dress would have looked like. The colors will be an off white and because I don't want to spend the next eight years of my life on embroidery, I want to look for either,

1) tulle with a gold pattern already printed on it or a bead type embellishment

or 2) find some sort of bead type embellishment and stitch it on myself. I don't mind sewing something on, but I'm not going to embroidery 20 yards of tulle. That sounds like a nightmare.

Although this project is dependent on a lot of things coming together in my life right now, I'm very exited to be starting the beginning phases of research.

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