The Empress Eugenie and Fashion
In 1998 the Museums Service was given four bodices, two skirts, and several pieces of lace c1900-10 said to have belonged to the Empress Eugenie. They may have been bought at the sale of her house after her death in 1920.
One skirt, of black silk net and satin [C1998.21/7], now on display at Aldershot Military Museum, is decorated with diamante, and jet buttons bearing the monogram VR, for Victoria Regina, suggesting that the skirt may have been given to Eugenie by her friend Queen Victoria.
For fashion historians and designers, the name of Eugenie is inextricably linked with fashion history. Eugenie, with her beautiful blue eyes, red hair, perfect complexion, and tiny feet, was a fashion icon in France in the 1850s and 1860s. Ladies copied her hairstyles and even dyed their hair red. Her name was applied to a myriad fashion styles and accessories.
Eugenie adopted the English fashion designer Charles Frederick Worth, who was working in France, as Imperial couturier, after admiring the ball dress of Princess Pauline de Metternich at a Palais de Tuileries Ball in 1859. Worth’s first dress for Eugenie was a silk brocade manufactured in Lyons, which she thought looked like curtain material, but Napoleon persuaded her to wear it to support French industry. By 1864 the ‘Maison Worth et Bobergh’ supplied all Eugenie’s state and evening wear.
A fashion magazine in our collections, The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine of May-October 1861, is full of descriptions of her dresses, and in particular the size and extravagance of her skirts and petticoats:
A moderate sized steel petticoat, and a muslin one –with, of course, a plain one over it - make a muslin dress look very nicely… the Empress usually wears one of these muslin petticoats, with a series of narrow flounces to the waist (June).
The Empress Eugenie(s) petticoats were very light, but stood out a great deal: and following her example, all the Paris Ladies are wearing their skirts very wide and ample – a very agreeable fashion for the warm weather (July).
During the stay of the Empress at Fontainebleau, she and some of the ladies…wore their dresses looped up over striped silk petticoats of very bright colours (August).
Eugenie clearly brought many of her French ball gowns to England when she fled in exile. When Queen Victoria visited Eugenie’s home at Farnborough Hill in 1884 she saw “a little sofa covered with pale mauve satin with a design of flowers which, the Empress told me, was made out the last dress she wore at the Tuileries”. Other of her dresses, including her wedding dress, were turned into vestments for the monks at Farnborough Abbey.
Senior Keeper of Art and Design