Empress Eugenie’s Sewing Circle: 1866

 EugenieEugenie’s Latest Whim

The fashionable female world will be astounded at the latest whim which has seized the beautiful French Empress. For some time odd rumors have been circulated, which are now thought to have an origin in the far-reaching policy of the Emperor, rather any change of the Empress. Visitors admitted to the privilege of seeing their Majesties in the retirement of domestic life have expressed their astonishment at the simplicity of dress adopted by Eugenie. A plain dress without trimming, and worn with only a linen collar and cuffs, was said to be her costume on one occasion. In the recent speech made by the Emperor before the Corps Legislatif, he declared himself tired of hearing about more liberty for France. What France wanted was not more liberty, but greater simplicity, virtue and happiness. To this speech Jules Favre made a terrible reply.

He showed that, under the Empire, virtue and happiness were not to be found; that idleness and luxury had taken their place; that vice and wantonness stalked boldly abroad at midday in Paris, and were openly copied and countenanced by the leaders of Parisian society.

The effect of this scathing rebuke has been somewhat neutralized by an incident which occurred the other day, and which has been industriously circulated. A deputation of Lyons workmen waited upon her Majesty with a sample of antique and very costly brocade, which she was requested to bring into fashion. “I am very sorry I cannot comply with your wishes,” said the Empress, with her peculiarly charming style, “but there are many ladies whose husbands could not afford these toilettes as expensive. My own is among the number.” Of course the deputation left puzzled, bewildered, at the Emperor’s poverty, but completely fascinated.

I have not told you, however, of the latest Imperial whim which has taken the direction of sewing machines. A few weeks ago the Empress issued an order for several different kinds of sewing machines—one of which captivated her fancy, and it is said that she has not only become an expert operator herself, but that, greatly to the disgust of her ladies, she ordered several more of the same kind, and insists upon an hour’s practice as one of the daily morning recreations. A sort of Court Society has thus been formed, the substantial results of which are to be given to the poor. The news of this new whim of the Empress has been received with enthusiasm in fashionable quarters, and an immense rush created for machines. It is to be hoped the new whim will last long enough to clothe some of the miserable poor of Paris.

Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 21 April 1866: p. 1

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The Second Empire was a time of inflation both in skirt volume and in fashionable extravagance. Some pious ladies formed sewing circles to help the poor. Others tried to rein in the expense of being a la mode.

A number of ladies in Paris have formed themselves into a society called “L’ Union des Femmes Chretienne,” for the purpose of reforming the fashions. Each one promises to pay so much a year for her toilettes, and not to employ any dressmaker or buy goods unless she can pay for them right away. Won’t they please try this on here? Monticello [IA] Express 26 Mary 1870: p. 3

The Empress Eugenie, was, of course, Empress of the French until 1871. She and Emperor Napoleon III sought refuge in England, where the Emperor died in 1873.  As one might ascertain from the hostile tone of the article above, the Empress was often accused of extravagance in her dress. Here is what Dr Thomas Evans, the American dentist who helped her to escape to England (and who seems more than a little enamoured of her Imperial Majesty), had to say:

“But the anti-Imperialist gossips never grew weary of tattling about her love of personal display, of inventorying her dresses, and bonnets, and jewels, and furs, and of hypocritically bemoaning the “luxe offréné” —the unbridled luxury—of the Court. Just as if it was not one of the principal functions of a sovereign in a country like France—the arbitre de la mode for the world—to set the fashions of the day, and to regulate the etiquette and ceremonials of the Court!

And most eminently was she qualified to prescribe and govern the “form” at a Court brilliant and fond of display and originality to the verge of eccentricity. It was with the most exquisite tact and taste that she fixed the line where fashion stopped, and to pass beyond which would have been ridiculous. The beau monde everywhere accepted her decisions in these matters as ne plus ultra. From the day she entered the Tuileries, the Empress was the ruler of the world of fashion, and the supreme authority with her sex, in the four quarters of the globe, in all matters pertaining to the graces and elegancies of social life; and through her patronage the names of the couturieres, and modistes, and florists of Paris became famous in every land.

And yet most ladies who are at all prominent in our fin de siecle society, would probably be greatly surprised were I to tell them that the Empress, when one day at Farnborough reference was made to these particular critics and the alleged extravagance of her wardrobe, said in my presence: ”How very ridiculous all this is. Well! I suppose they think they must say something. Why! with the exception of a few gowns made for special ceremonial occasions, (those which she used very happily to call ‘mes robes politiques ‘) during the whole time I was at the Tuileries I never wore a dress that cost more than fifteen hundred francs, and most of my dresses were much less expensive.”

A writer who is no friend of the Empress has the grace to say, when speaking of her: “We live at a time when queens are exposed to public observation more than ever before, when they cannot put on a dress without having it described by fifty newspapers, when twenty articles are published every day about their fetes, their amusements, their jewels, and their head-dresses. This publicity tends to lower queens in the estimation of the people, who no longer see anything but the frivolous side of their lives.”

Memoirs of Dr Thomas W. Evans, 1905


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