Eugenie - Empress of the French - George Upton

Eugenie as a Leader of Fashion

The stairways and corridors in the Tuileries were so dark that they had to be lighted summer and winter; and this, with the bad ventilation, made the palace so unbearable in warm weather that the court spent the summer months away from Paris, at Fontainebleau, St. Cloud, or Biarritz. Of these resorts Napoleon's favorite was St. Cloud, where he usually went to recuperate from the severe attacks of illness to which he was subject. Here he was quite happy, playing with his dog Nero, a faithful companion for many years, or tending his roses in the palace garden.

Eugenie, on her part, preferred Biarritz, in the Pyrenees, and it was owing largely to her that this resort became by far the most popular in France, casting Dieppe, Trouville, and Boulogne completely in the shade. Nowhere in the world could there have been found such a medley of wealth and poverty, aristocrats and adventurers, high-born dames and demi-mondaines of all classes, as at Biarritz in the days of the Second Empire. It had attractions of all sorts, hotels and restaurants, shops and bazaars of every description, as well as a casino containing a theatre, concert hall, ball and gaming rooms, from the broad terrace of which there was a most charming view.

Opposite the town, on a rocky plateau across a narrow arm of the sea, stood the Chateau Eugenie. It looked more like a barracks than a palace, and owing to the salt spray flung all around it in time of storm, no sort of vegetation would thrive there; but when the Empress stepped out on her terrace in the morning, the sea lay spread out at her feet. The ever changing lights and shades of sky and water lent variety to the solitary landscape; while looking the other way she could watch the gay equipages rolling by toward the baths. This to her was the ideal combination of nature and civilization. In this beautiful spot Eugenie spent some of her happiest hours, forgetful of the tedium of court life, her husband's infidelities, and the persecutions of Prince Napoleon and his followers. Here her natural high spirits found vent, and she romped like a child with her little son, or revelled in the sea-bathing, feeling for the first time since her early youth the charms of a life free from excitement or ambitious aims.

Like all the children of Spain, she had the deepest affection and reverence for her native land, that land with which were connected so many happy as well as painful memories, and where her mother still lived. Now that her griefs had lost their sting, she often longed for Spanish ways and customs and to hear once more her childhood's tongue. From Biarritz she could make frequent excursions into Spain, where she hailed even the poorest peasants with delight, chatting with them in their native language, overwhelming them with gifts, and receiving in return so warm a welcome that it more than repaid her for all the humiliations of her youth. She also visited Madrid, the scene of her early adventures, and was received with the greatest distinction by Queen Isabella, from whose court she had once been dismissed on so slight a suspicion.

But it was not only in Spain that Eugenie won all hearts. Whether receiving royal guests or visiting some charitable institution, presiding at court or opening an exhibition, it could not be denied that she had been wonderfully equipped by nature for the great role she had been called upon to play on the world's stage. Part of her popularity was also due to the kindness of heart which was such a conspicuous trait in her character through all her changes of fortune. Many admirable institutions in Paris owe their origin to the Empress Eugenie's benevolence. In the Summer of 1865, while acting as Regent during the Emperor's stay in Algiers, she devoted herself to improving conditions in the reform schools for children. Accompanied by a prefect of police she made a visit in person to "La Petite Roquette," a house of correction. A terrible state of affairs existed in this institution, where, since it was intended more for abandoned children than those in need of punishment, a cell system had been introduced to prevent communication between the two classes. The dark court was also divided by high walls; and here the five hundred wretched inmates could be seen creeping about their cages like wild beasts, with bowed heads and dull, vacant faces.

The Empress's motherly heart overflowed with pity at sight of these children's sufferings. She appointed a commission at once to make a change in this dreadful system and attended all the meetings, which were held at the Tuileries, with the greatest interest and enthusiasm. A member of the commission took advantage of one of these meetings to oppose the Empress's project. "The idea is all very well, Madame," he declared, "but there are so many obstacles in the way of its execution that it is difficult to see how any remedy can be provided. To discuss the question is merely an excursion into the realm of sentiment."

"Pardon me," replied the Empress gently, "but this is a question of humanity, not of politics." And she finally carried her point. The youthful prisoners of La Roquette were sent into the country, and the cell system was abolished. It was not without anxiety that the warders received the new inmates, fearing it would be a hard task to manage them and that the well-behaved children would be corrupted by the others. Results proved, however, that the Empress was right, for even the most depraved and hardened culprits improved with kind treatment and work in the open air.

Equally worthy of note was the day spent by the Regent at St. Lazare—a place of confinement for abandoned women. News of the Empress's visit to this place spread like wildfire over the city, and on leaving these poor, despised creatures she received touching proofs of the people's devotion to her. The crowds assembled in the streets murmured blessings on her, while the women knelt to kiss the hem of her gown.

Toward the end of September, 1865, cholera broke out in Paris, and the court, which was then at Biarritz, decided to return to the capital at once. The memory of the terrible epidemic of 1849 was still fresh in the minds of the people; and when, after apparently subsiding, the disease broke out again with renewed violence a terrible panic ensued. The courage and self-sacrifice displayed by Eugenie during this time won universal applause; the newspapers, even those hostile to her, were loud in praise of the royal "sister of charity." On the twenty-first of October the Emperor made a long visit to one of the cholera hospitals, and on leaving ordered the sum of fifty thousand francs to be distributed for the relief of the sufferers. Eugenie, to whom he had said nothing of his intention, was much disappointed at not having accompanied him. The next morning she drove from St. Cloud to Paris, where she made the rounds of all the cholera hospitals herself, going from bed to bed with words of cheer and comfort. Once, pausing beside a man who was dying, she took his hand in hers gently and spoke some words of sympathy to him. Thinking it one of the nuns, the poor fellow summoned up his last remnants of strength to kiss her hand. "Thanks, sister," he murmured. The sister of charity who accompanied the Empress leaned over and said:

"You mistake, my friend; it was not I, but our gracious Empress who spoke to you."

"Never mind, sister," interposed Eugenie, "he could have given me no more beautiful name—" a saying which was repeated and long remembered among the people.

Yet much as Eugenie had endeared herself to the masses by her fearlessness and kind-heartedness during the cholera epidemic, it was not long before the feeling against her on account of her bigotry, extravagance, and frivolity again came to the surface, not alone in court circles but throughout the whole Empire. To lay to the Empress's account all the follies and indiscretions, all the worldliness and self-seeking, of Parisian life at that time, would be most unfair; yet it cannot be denied that her influence had much to do with the luxury and the eccentricities of fashion that prevailed. Doomed by her rank to a life of idleness and inactivity, the lack of proper food for heart and mind forced her energies to find outlet in trifles. The gratification of her vanity became the chief object of life. With the sceptre of France, her slender hand also grasped that of the world of fashion—a domain in which she was no beneficent sovereign, but a tyrant whose yoke was borne without a murmur. Even when she was a young girl her costumes excited envy and admiration for their originality, and at every watering-place she visited, bungling imitations of the beautiful Spaniard's toilettes were to be seen in hotels and gaming halls. In Paris her influence soon began to be felt, and almost before her name had become familiar to the people her waistcoats were being copied and sold by all the fashionable tailors, and the high-heeled riding boots she had worn at Compiegne were adopted by every French court lady. Every morning, as we have seen, before going to mass, Eugenie devoted one or two hours at least to the study of dress.

Her bedchamber, with its adjoining oratory, was at some distance from her other apartments and lacked all stamp of individuality. The bed, heavily draped with rich hangings, was raised on a dais, and resembled a throne. In this room she kept the Golden Rose that was presented to her by the Pope, and beside the bed stood one of the palm branches sent her each year by the Holy Father with his blessing. Yet here she spent far less time during the day than in the dressing-room next it, where there were several large movable mirrors enabling her to see herself from all points. On the floor above, connected by elevator and speaking tube with her private apartments, were the rooms occupied by her waiting-women. Here was a vast store of silks, velvets, and satins, with gowns and every conceivable article of wearing apparel. Ranged along the wall were rows of dresses and wraps of all sorts and colors, with receptacles for hats, shoes, fans, parasols, etc. In one of the rooms were several life-sized forms which the Empress had had made, exactly reproducing her own figure in size and height, and dressed like living women to the smallest detail; for in spite of the pains taken by the modistes and tailors to win her approval, it was seldom that a costume entirely suited her.

She was tireless in her quest for novelty. With each change of season, quantities of models and materials were brought to her to choose from, and numberless conferences were held with Madame Virot, the court milliner, as well as Worth, the famous ladies' tailor, whose reputation she founded. He would often send her costumes costing one or two hundred thousand francs, and once he made her pay as much as fifty thousand francs for a simple cloak. Even these works of art met with no mercy in their original form, but were always remodeled and altered according to her orders, until her own carefully cultivated taste produced the desired effect of perfect harmony. All the artistic talent she possessed was devoted to the study of dress, and under her sway fashion rose into the realm of art. Inseparable from the image of the beautiful Spaniard is the energy with which for eighteen long years she wielded its sceptre. Her greatest interest in life, it constituted at once her strength and her weakness—weakness because from it sprang the charge of folly and extravagance justly made by France against its former sovereign; strength, because of the art with which it enabled her to hold her place on the pedestal to which she had been elevated, and gave her the power to dazzle and fascinate not only the masses but also her equals and contemporaries.