Impress of an empress: The influence of Eugénie on luxury style is still felt today

Empress Eugénie's influence on fashion came very much from her far from ordinary  life, says Alexander Fury

There's always a great woman inside great fashion. They tend to be inside rather than behind – by which I mean either within the fashion houses, working as anything from couturière down to les petites mains (the technicians, the 'little hands' that actually sew together those exceptional haute couture pieces), or inside the clothing itself. That's a role which is often underestimated. After all, fashion needs to live on a body.

Empress Eugénie's influence on fashion came very much from her life. Admittedly, it was no ordinary life. Born into Spanish nobility, Eugénie de Montijo first met 'prince-president' Louis-Napoleon at the Élysée Palace on 12 April, 1849. Four years and a coup d'état later, on 22 January 1853, the then-emperor Napoleon III announced his engagement. They married a mere week later, when she became Empress of the French (as luck would have it, the last).

What all that entailed, in fashion terms, was constant travelling – from Spain, to Suez, to Sri Lanka, and between the French court hubs of Paris, Compiègne and Biarritz – and constant outfit changes. In layman's terms, that means clothes. Lots of clothes. And, of course, lots of luggage. Luckily the luxury industry in Paris was booming under the second empire, a city being reshaped under its denizens' feet by Baron Haussmann.

Just as Haussmann rebuilt their city, Charles Frederick Worth began to rebuild their bodies. Worth opened his house in 1858. He didn't invent the crinoline, already well established by 1855, but he was its ultimate proponent, pushing it to extreme proportions by 1860. Eugénie was his willing accomplice. By 1868, they jointly agreed the crinoline was 'out', pricked it with a pin and pulled dresses snug around the hips, looped up into a bustle behind. In fashion terms, it was Worth's own coup d'état, but he could never have achieved it without Eugénie. She may have f dubbed Worth the "tyrant of fashion", but it was Eugénie who really held the power.

That's because, like Marie Antoinette before her, Eugénie reigned over fashion as well as France – indeed, under Eugénie's taste, the styles of Louis Seize were revived, and her court modelled on that of her predecessor. But Eugénie also learnt a few lessons from Antoinette's demise: mainly, that she was expected to lead the race in the fashion stakes without becoming its victim, and that she would be scrutinised at every turn.

Eugénie, however, looked forward, rather than back. The importance of Worth, for instance, wasn't so much his fashions, as what he did with them. He founded haute couture. However, he could only do so with the patronage of Eugénie, an empress certainly, but before even that an arbiter of fashion.

By the 1860s, publications as far afield as the Philadelphia-based fashion magazine Godey's Lady's Book were scouring Eugénie's fashion choices. She introduced colours – 'Empress blue' – and hairstyles dubbed 'à l'imperatrice'. Her portrait was displayed in boutiques throughout Europe and America.

Eugénie's influence still stamps fashion today. Worth may be restricted to the rarefied world of haute couture, but Eugénie also gave a start to a little-known luggage-maker named Monsieur Louis Vuitton. Back in 1854, when Vuitton first established himself as a malletier (trunk-maker) on Rue Neuve des Capucines in Paris, he was charged not only with crafting the Empress's luggage, but with filling it too, "packing the most beautiful clothes in an exquisite way," to borrow her words. Given the volume of clothes – and the volume of those crinolines – that was no simple task. As with Worth, the imperial stamp of approval opened every door for Vuitton – and he founded his very own fashion empire, one that would outlive Napoleon III's.

Vuitton, however, hasn't forgotten the Empress's role. She's currently ensconced in Tokyo as one of its 'Timeless Muses', at an exhibition in Tokyo, her regal countenance staring you down alongside relative commoners such as Catherine Deneuve and Sofia Coppola. The latter two women inspired handbags: Eugénie helped found the luxury-goods industry as we know it. No contest really. Even without an empire, Eugénie is still an empress of fashion.

Alexander Fury is Fashion Editor of The Independent

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Tax Senior

    £28000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer and Markets Development Executive

    £22000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company's mission is to ma...

    Recruitment Genius: Guest Services Assistant

    £13832 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This 5 star leisure destination on the w...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Account Manager

    £20000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Account Manager is requ...

    Day In a Page

    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
    Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover

    Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

    Set a pest to catch a pest

    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
    Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

    The dark side of Mexico

    A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

    Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border