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
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

    Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

    Ashdown Group: Head of IT - Hertfordshire - £90,000

    £70000 - £90000 per annum + bonus + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: H...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - SQL Server, T-SQL

    £28000 - £32000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

    Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Data Analyst (SQL Server, T-SQL, data)

    £28000 - £32000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst...

    Day In a Page

    Major medical journal Lancet under attack for 'extremist hate propaganda' over its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

    Lancet accused of 'anti-Israel hate propaganda' over coverage of Gaza conflict

    Threat to free speech as publishers of renowned medical journal are accused of inciting hatred and violence
    General Election 2015: Tories and Lib Dems throw their star names west to grab votes

    All noisy on the Lib Dems' western front

    The party has deployed its big guns in Cornwall to save its seats there. Simon Usborne heads to the heart of the battle
    How Etsy became a crafty little earner: The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?

    How Etsy became a crafty little earner

    The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?
    Guy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle King Arthur - one of our most versatile heroes

    King Arthur is inspiring Guy Ritchie

    Raluca Radulescu explains why his many permutations - from folk hero to chick-lit hunk - never cease to fascinate
    Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations for the man or woman on the street?

    Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations?

    The Apple Watch has apparently sold millions even before its launch tomorrow
    Don't fear the artichoke: it's a good cook's staple, with more choice than you'd think

    Don't fear the artichoke

    Artichokes are scary - they've got spikes and hairy bits, and British cooks tend to give them a wide berth. But they're an essential and delicious part of Italian cuisine
    11 best men's socks

    11 best men's socks

    Make a statement with your accessories, starting from the bottom up
    Paul Scholes column: Eden Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo

    Paul Scholes column

    Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo
    Frank Warren: Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal
    London Marathon 2015: Kenya's brothers in arms Wilson Kipsang and Dennis Kimetto ready to take on world

    Kenya's brothers in arms take on world

    Last year Wilson Kipsang had his marathon record taken off him by training partner and friend Dennis Kimetto. They talk about facing off in the London Marathon
    Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad but it's not because I refuse to fly

    Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad

    Green leader prefers to stay clear of her 'painful' family memories but is more open about 'utterly unreasonable' personal attacks
    Syria conflict: Khorasan return with a fresh influx of fighters awaiting the order to start 'shooting the birds'

    Khorasan is back in Syria

    America said these al-Qaeda militants were bombed out of the country last year - but Kim Sengupta hears a different story
    General Election 2015: Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North for Ukip?

    On the campaign trail with Ukip

    Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North?
    Four rival Robin Hood movies get Hollywood go-head - and Friar Tuck will become a superhero

    Expect a rush on men's tights

    Studios line up four Robin Hoods productions
    Peter Kay's Car Share: BBC show is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade

    In the driving seat: Peter Kay

    Car Share is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade. The programme's co-creator Paul Coleman reveals the challenges of getting the show on the road