Empress Sisi's wardrobe goes on display in Vienna

VIENNA Thu Apr 24, 2014 9:59am EDT

1 of 8. People line up at the ticket counter in front of the entrance to the Sisi museum at Hofburg palace in Vienna April 16, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Heinz-Peter Bader

VIENNA (Reuters) - The wardrobe of the Habsburg Empress Elizabeth is on display in Vienna at an exhibition commemorating the 10-year anniversary of the museum named for her, Vienna's Sisi Museum.

Empress Elisabeth - called Sisi by family and friends - was the wife of Austro-Hungarian monarch Franz Joseph I, who married her when she was just 16. She eventually revolted against the strictures of 19th century court life and took refuge in a cult of her own beauty, dieting and exercising almost obsessively.

Sisi continues to intrigue biographers, novelists and film makers. The death of her only son, Prince Rudolf, in an apparent murder-suicide with his lover, and her own assassination by an Italian anarchist in 1898 have only added to her mystique.

"I think Sisi became a myth very shortly after her death, because she always was different, lived the life she wanted and did things - like travelling around all over the world - other women could only dream of," said Olivia Lichtscheidl, curator of the Sisi Museum.

The museum in the Hofburg Palace attests to her international following. It has the fifth-highest annual tourist visits - 645,000 in 2013 - in the Austrian capital, a city overflowing with cultural institutions.

The "Silk-Lace-Ermine" jubilee exhibition highlights Sisi's 19-inch (48-cm) waist, smaller than the circumference of an American college football, with the presentation of Sisi's blue Corfu gown, worn on Habsburg vacations to the Greek island.

"It is subtly cut as usual to emphasize Elisabeth's slender waist," Lichtscheidl said. "That we got this light-colored one is fantastic as it shows that Sisi was not only dressed in black after her son committed suicide."

The rare dress was discovered stuffed in a small box measuring 55 by 48 by 13 centimeters, along with the Empress's nightgown and other memorabilia. The box lay hidden away for decades in the attic of Seisenegg Castle near the town of Amstetten in Lower Austria.

The exhibition also features the so-called "imperial undergarments" worn by the empress. Her white culottes were ahead of their time, the museum says - they only became common female attire in the next century.

The Sisi Museum purchased the dress box for 32,000 euros ($44,300) at a Munich auction room in 2012 - a snip compared with the $1.2 million that a collection of gowns worn by Princess Diana fetched at auction last year.

"People today love to compare her to nowadays life. They admire her for her emancipation," Lichtscheidl said. "I think for young women, she is closer to our problems, feelings or reactions, like for example Maria Theresia or Marie Antoinette."

The Sisi Museum is part of Schoenbrunn Palace Management Company, along with the Imperial Apartments and Silver Collection in the Hofburg Palace. The company is unique among Austrian cultural institutions in receiving no public subsidies. It relies on revenue from admissions, retailing, events and rent from the imperial apartments. Its operating budget is around 7.6 million euros.

Thursday's opening marks the 160th anniversary of the Bavarian-born Empress's marriage to Franz Josef. The exhibit is set to close on December 24, Sisi's 177th birthday. ($1 = 0.7231 Euros) ($1 = 0.5960 British Pounds)

(Reporting By Derek Brooks; Editing by Larry King)

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