The Empress or Die Kaiserin is a 2022 German historical drama series on the life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria. This series was released on Netflix on the 29th of September, 2022. In this post, we’ll be doing an analysis of the costumes by Swiss costume designer Gabrielle Reumer. These movie costumes weren’t supposed to be accurate in the first place, so there are a lot of such things as corsets worn as outer garments, no headdresses on the women, or the main character wearing contemporary sunglasses. But still, the show costumes in The Empress are lovely and eye-catching.
This material is based on the video from YouTube channel “Costume CO”.
In this series, judging from the costumes alone, you can tell that liberties were taken. This is a fictional telling of a time in history, with many of the historical elements of the Habsburg Empire being mashed together. They hone in on the spirited heroine trope and the love story between Sisi and Franz Joseph.
If you're a history purist, the show will likely drive you batty. There are the usual suspects – no chemise is worn under corsets, corsets worn as outer garments, a lack of headdresses on the women, Sisi wearing contemporary sunglasses, the tight lacing trope, etc.
The wigs range from contemporary, like with Duchess Helene in Bavaria, or high-end design theatrical stylings of the Countess Sophie Esterházy and the other countesses. Even some of the styles of hair and makeup look like they are right out of the 80s.
But beyond that, there is a pretty sophisticated costume design happening here.
The show itself is just gorgeous, with all of the beautiful exteriors and interiors of the palace that have a painterly quality.
Now, it all begins with the palette.
Showrunner Katrin Gebbe said, “How do we make this historical, somewhat outdated look fresher and more modern? The design team opted to remove the color red from the palette, while green was only used outside in nature. So instead, there is a lot of black, gray, white, and shades of pink, mauve, rose, and yellow”.
A contemporary designer, Gabrielle Reumer didn't know if she was the right person for the job. She told German Vogue that she saw it as a challenge. She came to it with a modern approach, saying, this is a big project and not easy to implement, you have to adapt a bit to the present and adapt the material for today's eyes, because a lot of things just don't work anymore.
Because Elisabeth was a famous living figure, there are many portraits and photos taken of her over her lifetime.
And there are some of her costumes in museums in Vienna, such as her coronation gown, which at this point in the series hasn't happened yet.
Many of the gowns were specially created for Empress Elisabeth, including her coronation gown and Diamond Stars gown by famous Parisian couturier Charles Frederick Worth.
For her research, the costume designer visited the locations at Vienna's Schönbrunn Palace, where she also examined some of Sisi’s dresses, Sisi’s hunting lodge, and Hofburg Imperial Palace.
She said that she read a lot of books, but also looked at Couture designs and took inspiration from Christian Dior and Alexander McQueen.
She said, “I'm actually very minimalist when it comes to my costumes”.
In our observations and with the corset, in particular, it appears that the costume designer pushed the silhouette further away from the setting of 1854 to the later part of the century.
Gabrielle Reumer said in a Vogue interview, “At that time, the crinoline, a kind of hoop skirt, was round like a ball and gave the woman a doll-like look, but for me, that didn't fit the story of Sisi, this woman who emancipated herself and freed herself from oppression and power games”.
She said, “I changed the shape of the crinoline, which also became fashionable around 1870 – flatter in the front and a bit more elliptical in the back. I used this form for Sisi and Sophie”.
Gabrielle Reumer said that Sisi's overbearing mother-in-law, Archduchess Sophie, embodies a power man's costumes and always wanted tight, high-necked clothes. She added that, “And then she got bigger and stronger in the costumes”.
A total of 2,000 costumes were used for this series. Many of the background players’ outfits were sourced from costume houses in London and Rome.
It’s really interesting that they rented many of the costumes for the lower classes from Martin Scorsese's 2002 film Gangs of New York, which, Gabrielle Reumer said, depict a similar time and already had a nice patina.
The principal character costumes were either custom-made or remade from existing pieces. Gabrielle Reumer said that she discovered some individual pieces in London, like lace blouses and capes that were in good condition.
For the bespoke items, the designer turned to two costume couturiers to bring her designs to life – her wardrobe master in Berlin and production workshop Costumes Couture in Vienna, who made almost all of Elisabeth and Sophie's dresses.
She said, Michaela Meyer at Costumes Couture also makes many evening dresses for the Vienna Opera Ball.
“We have the cancellation of the ballroom season due to Covid”, Michaela Meyer said in an interview. “We had more space in our studio shop because it officially was closed down for a long period of time and we could use the whole space for working on the dresses”.
Gabrielle Reumer said that her wardrobe master in Berlin sews historically accurate but for this reason, it can take a month to create a dress. Meanwhile, Costumes Couture has a modern approach that is much faster and can turn around a dress in about two weeks, depending upon its complexity.
Michaela Meyer said, “I love to drape and work more free than other designers and especially costume designers do. The outcome is not 100% historical, which was also not the wish from Gabrielle”.
Monica Ferrari-Krieger, Meyer's business partner at Costume Couture, was more involved in creating the tops, jackets, and blouses, while Michaela Meyer was more into the skirts which, she said, “I draped on the dummy, leaving the crinoline as a base”.
She let the fabric lead the way, saying, “I like to work with the material itself and what it asks for. That means the actual process is very creative and, sometimes, I don't even know myself how exactly the result will look like”.
According to Gabrielle Reumer, many of Sophie's fabrics were manufactured in Vienna.
Meyer said, the Costume Couture created about 30-40 costumes for this series, with Sisi's wedding gown being the most challenging, according to the entire team.
Gabrielle Reumer said, “We wanted to create something depressing and show her wedding day is a horror – the whole kingdom comes and wants something from her. The costume should be high-necked and tight. We made a kind of lace turtleneck and a huge crinoline”.
She said that the lace for the gown was originally embroidered in Austria in Vorarlberg.
Of this costume, which had a skirt circumference of 167 centimeters or almost 6 feet, Michaela Meyer says, “There was also so much material involved, so many layers of tulle and embroidery. The wedding gown took about 4 weeks to make”.
Michaela Meyer said, there was a lot of hand work included, especially hand embroidered, that work was hard to calculate and took much longer than they thought it would take.
The wedding gown and Sophie’s striped gown were her favorite costumes in the series and, she says, “Because it was done all freely draped on the dummy, the way I usually work at my Couture work”.
While it's never mentioned in Gabrielle Reumer's interview with Vogue, we noticed also that there were a few Eastern influences. We don't have a picture of it but at one point, Sisi is wearing a gorgeous embroidered night robe and then over her nightgown, she dons this lovely jeogori, a jacket that would be worn with the traditional Korean woman's hanbok.
While all of the men's and women's costumes in the show are great, one of the most vivid outfits is the gold blouse with the contrasting mauve skirt.