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Apparently many of you have written in to ask if we’ll be reviewing The Empress (2022), Netflix’s offering amongst a spate of Empress Elisabeth of Austria/Sissi films and TV series out right about now. And because enough of you have said the costumes are terrible, and because Trystan is a big meanie, she suggested I go ahead and recap this for Snark Week instead of doing my usual thing of asking you what I should review. Now, I already hate mid-19th century (the death of fashion), although thankfully this is set in Europe and not some dusty American small town, but just know that I am cursing you as I watch/write this!
Episode one takes place in 1853ish (Elisabeth married Franz in 1854), so let’s take a look at mid-1850s fashions first:
The costumes in The Empress were designed by Gabrielle Reumer, who’s done a lot of German-language titles but not much that’s period. For extra laughs, I give you this review of her work by Collider.com:
“The costuming of The Empress is a sumptuous feast for the eyes; from the intricate dresses worn by Elisabeth, to the exquisite details of the gentleman’s refined wardrobe and military regalia. Gabrielle Reumer, the series’ costume designer, has a keen eye for not only layering colors and textures to convey deeper meaning in each scene and episode but to explore the full breadth of what Austrians were wearing during the period. So often historical productions will limit themselves to drab, lifeless colors and patterns, failing to recognize just how vibrant the aristocracy dressed. With The Empress, these dramatic sparks of color and ostentatious designs stand in stark contrast with the rebellion brewing beyond the palace gates.”
Now, please to enjoy the “full breadth of what Austrians were wearing during the period,” which, apparently, is a whole lot of WTFrock:
The Empress: Episode 1
A bunch of people in derpy bonnets are watching a wedding:
We cut to … it’s 1853ish, per Wikipedia, and the Duchess of Bavaria, aka Elisabeth’s Mom, is pissed because she can’t find her eldest daughter, Elisabeth aka Sisi. Elisabeth is a handful, and Elisabeth’s Mom is trying to marry her off but she keeps refusing perfectly good suitors. Elisabeth’s Mom finds a younger sister, who says that Elisabeth said she wants to marry someone who speaks to her soul (or something like that).
Elisabeth has snuck off to ride her horse and commune with nature.
Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria is practicing fencing, but is called to see his mother.
Franz’s mom, the Archduchess Sophie (aka Franz’s Mom), and he have a tense conversation about how there’s going to be an execution. He’s stressed because things are hard on the people right now, she’s all “buck up buttercup.” She’s clearly running things in the Austrian Empire. Franz’s Mom is giving ALL KINDS of alien queen vibes:
Elisabeth goes to find her father, because her horse has been spooked by a snake and broken its leg. Dad is passed out post-orgy. He kills the horse (because the leg will never heal), telling Elisabeth that she likes to break the rules and these are the consequences.
Elisabeth’s Mom tries to distract Elisabeth’s potential suitor with her boobs.
At the execution, we finally see that Franz’s Mom is dressed for an entirely different movie, set in probably the 1890s-1900s and styled after A Series of Unfortunate Events, Penny Dreadful, or something starring Eva Green. The condemned give a speech about how they are dying for the people and the people will rise up etc. etc.
Of course the real Archduchess Sophie/Franz’s Mom wasn’t insane and dressed like a reasonable person in this era:
Elisabeth finally turns up. Elisabeth’s Mom is pissed, ranting about how her other daughter, Helene, is perfect and never causes trouble. Elisabeth’s Mom has an ulcer. She reminds Elisabeth that they’re going to marry off Helene to someone important, and Elisabeth can come along but she can’t cause trouble, and maybe if she’s lucky some crumbs (ie a loser younger son) might fall her way. Elisabeth just wants to write poetry, man.
Franz’s Mom reveals a portrait of the girl she wants Franz to marry: Helene. The Archduchess and Duchess are sisters, so the girls and Franz are cousins.
En route to visit the imperial family for Franz’s birthday and the hoped-for betrothal, Helene clearly fancies herself in love already and Elisabeth vows to behave.
Now that we’ve gotten a good look at Elisabeth and family, let’s compare to the real deal:
One of the Bavarians’ trunks hasn’t arrived. Elisabeth’s Mom and Helene are freaked out that all they have are mourning clothes.
Franz goes for an early-morning ride; Elisabeth for an early-morning walk and bird rescuing. The two meet and have a stilted yet meaningful conversation.
Franz’s younger brother, Archduke Maximilian, returns from a tour of the provinces with an Italian floozy in hand. His mom, the Archduchess (Franz’s Mom), doesn’t bat an eye. Maximilian tells Franz that The People don’t like him, and everyone says Mom is running the show (true). Franz asks Maximilian to come to Vienna to be his advisor.
Franz’s Mom is dressed like a whack-job:
The Bavarians (Elisabeth’s Mom, Elisabeth, and Helene) are introduced to Franz and family. There’s a lunch where Helene and Franz sit with the two moms, while Elisabeth sits with Maximilian, his floozy, and a younger brother. Afterwards, we all go for a walk in the garden. Maximilian clearly has the hots for Elisabeth, who is spunky.
The Bavarians are all in mourning clothes, as that’s what was in the trunks they do have.
Helene has embroidered a handkerchief as a gift for Franz, but when she appears hot he gives it right back to her. Later, she complains about this and that he didn’t really ask her anything about herself. Her/Elisabeth’s Mom tells her that’s not what she’s there for.
Franz comes across Elisabeth laying on the floor. She explains that it was hot and the floor was cool. He’s intrigued and lays down with her, enjoying her pixie dust.
Franz’s Mom takes a bath with her extremely-weirdly-hairstyled attendants. They’re already plotting to plant some insiders as attendants to Helene when she is Empress.
After her bath, Franz’s Mom watches someone (Maximilian? Franz? A total rando?) get it on.
Elisabeth is awake, doing something with poetry, wearing a chemise, petticoat, and shawl. Someone knocks at her door, so she takes OFF her shawl to answer the door, therefore making herself more undressed?? An attendant says the Emperor wants to see her, so instead of grabbing said shawl, she goes to see him, uncorseted and boobs a-flying. He wants to drink champagne with her and celebrate his birthday. He’s felt dead for months, but she has made him feel alive again. He goes to kiss her and she first protests, but goes for it.
It’s Franz’s birthday. He announces he’s going to propose to a lady … Elisabeth. Everyone freaks out. Helene runs out, pissed. Elisabeth chases her, and Helene tells her off, saying she’ll make a horrible empress.
Elisabeth’s Mom is back in her first dress; Franz’s Mom is in an early 1900s stripey number with giant statement sash:
The moms and Franz go talk to Elisabeth. Elisabeth’s Mom is trying to convince Franz that Helene is much more suitable. Franz’s Mom is running the show and asks Elisabeth if she wants to be Empress. Elisabeth says yes.
Elisabeth checks out an inlaid floor map of Austria. Franz’s Mom leaves, discussing with her attendants how things that won’t bend (i.e., Elisabeth) will break.
An unwashed woman and man in a shitty part of town hear that the Emperor is getting married and discuss how this is their chance, For The People (cue ominous music).
Apparently the costumes will get even crazier (and, hopefully, shittier!) in future episodes, so strap in and join me tomorrow for episode 2!
Hated it. Actors are not right. Prefer the other recent Sisi actors and costumes (alothough not quite right, evokes Sisi’s style and the period better) and THE ROMY SCHNEIDER one.
OMG, I actually own that “Vera Wang for Kohl’s statement necklace” that Elisabeth’s mom is wearing. I got it in a ModCloth Secret Surprise like eight years ago. It’s incredibly heavy and awkward and pokey, and basically is only good for wacky costumes. So…fitting, I guess?
That description made me guffaw. I’ve seen similar things elsewhere.. I always like them in theory but not so much in practice.
That’s HILARIOUS! Quick, go sell it on Ebay for a jacked-up price!
Ah, yes, the classic mother of the bride wrap top dress look for Elisabeth’s mother. Sure, that makes sense. Also hadn’t ever given a thought to alien queen hair but once you identified it I realized that’s exactly what it is. OMG.
Seems like this is just.. meh and cliche. Oh she’s so unique and headstrong… she lays on the floor in palaces and writes poetry. Sure.
Sisi did write poetry, bad poetry.
If I remember correctly, the Dowager Empress is spying on the lady-in-waiting whom she lusts after. But I haven’t seen the first few episodes since they were released, and didn’t finish the show, so I don’t know if that goes anywhere.
Yeah, that didn’t come up any other time in this season!
Everything they do here is just so weird they have to have MEANT it to be anti-historical. As in ‘OMG, we’ve accidentally given Sisi a half-ways-credible Zouave jacket! Quick, take this big saggy tote bag and sling it across her body so she looks as though she were going to the beach.”
Seriously. She’s an aristocratic lady, she doesn’t carry her own crap.
What the fucking fuckery was that!? When I saw the dude with the crazy hair-tail-thingy I was out.
I watched the other TV version Sisi recently and thought the costumes were meh, BUT they were nowhere as shitty as this and the actors are very well! Omg can‘t wait for the rest of the recaps, maybe there is a plot twist that the Dowager Empress is a time traveller or something!
Also! Also: Sisi, the woman known for her corseted waist goes to see someone in just a chemise and petticoat?? Never ever!! To the trash with this free-spirited, connected-to-nature-and-therefore-not-dressing-as-a-sane-person nonsense!!!
There’s one little hint to her future eating disorders coming in a later episode, but yeah.
As a side note about this show getting things wrong, wasn’t Helene actually the older sister? I may be wrong in that but I could swear that was the case
You’re not wrong. :)
Yes, Helene was the elder sister. Elisabeth was only sixteen and suitors weren’t exactly lining up for any of the sisters – yet. They became very desirable matches only after becoming sisters in law to the Emperor. Left to herself Elisabeth might never have married at all, she may have been asexual if not aromantic. She didn’t like sex but she did love Franz Joseph as much as she was capable of loving anybody.
Helene would have been a much better wife and empress, it’s really a pity that Elisabeth was there to mess up the arrangements. Helene survived being passed over and was the only one of the Bavarian sisters to have happy marriage, though alas cut short by her husband’s early death.
I may have gotten that screwed up, I was too busy being horrified by the costumes!
Yes, you are right. Helene was two years older and had just been presented at the Bavarian court in Münich, and was getting her first suitors. Helene would be allowed several years to select a suitor in 19th century German-speaking aristocratic circles.
Sisi still had a governess and needed to work on her languages before coming out, this became a problem when she suddenly became Empress. IRL, Ludovika probably brought Sisi along to distract and amuse Franz Joseph’s sickly child brother Karl, who appears to not exist at all in this series.
All the clothes are so ugly.
Oh dearie, dearie me… what were they thinking? Just when you think you’ve seen it all, productions like this just pop up out of the woodwork. I actually felt sympathy for the poor female cast – then I saw the behind the scenes shot of the two Mums together, obviously having a high old time… perhaps they were just plain hysterical at being dressed in their ill-conceived mish-mash. It is a period when style was pretty dour and dire but they seem to have managed to make everything so much worse – quite an achievement! What on earth is going on with Franz’s Mum’s bizarrely huge sash? What is Franz’s Mum wearing in general? Cruella Deville meets bride of Frankenstein. What is going on with the hair and headwear? Every outfit seems to consist of various decades piled on top of the other and I just find my head sizzling in complete confusion. Please can designers do proper research, get the aesthetic and silhouette of the defined period in their heads and just STICK TO IT! If your going balls out wtf, then just commit to it and go wild: if not then don’t try and play with hideous and anachronistic colour combinations and fabrics, cut and fit, whilst still attempting to convince us that this is historical and how they actually dressed – it would make everything a lot less confusing for all involved… and breath lol.
Agreed! Pick one world and stick to it!!
Oh my god, thank you for doing this post because i had ALL of these thoughts when watching the show! I can’t get over how bizarre it is to watch because SOME costumes are like, perfect spot on for the period…and then Archduchess Alien Queen Sophie walks on and my brain explodes.
(speaking of which, just WAIT until you get to the giant houndstooth print monstrosity she wears in a later episode!)
I started watching this and immediately had to find someone to talk to about how horrible the costumes are. Why oh WHY do they always have to ‘modernize’ them???? People who like these types of shows LIKE the period costuming. Quit trying to pander to a viewer who wouldn’t want to watch a period movie anyways, you are just going to lose your target audience. I understand changing some of the hair and hats/headpieces because yes, some of the period styles are just plain ugly and unflattering, but this is just crazy!