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Culture

Seeking Sisi's Wedding Gown

Austria's monarchy may have been abolished almost a century ago, but the country's German-born Empress Sisi continues to fascinate people around the globe. Her vanished wedding dress is the latest object of obsession.

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It might have worked as a wedding dress, but Sisi wore this one much later

It's a story well known from books and movies: Beautiful Bavarian princess Elisabeth marries young Habsburg emperor Franz Joseph and goes on to become Sisi, legendary Austrian empress.

The marriage took place in 1854 with full imperial splendor. But whatever happened to her wedding dress?

Looking for hints

Österreich Sisi-Museum in Wien Fragmente von Sisis Brautkleid

All that's left of Sisi's gown is the embroidery on this priest's robe

Its whereabouts are shrouded in mystery. Only its silver embroidery remains. The resplendent flower garlands today grace a priest's robe which is now on display at Vienna's Sisi Museum.

Habsburg experts have little idea what happened to the rest of the dress. And in an attempt to solve the mystery, the museum has asked the public for help.

It is calling on all Sisi fans, experts, collectors or relatives of former court servants to help and provide information when possible.

Museum curator Katrin Unterreiner said scouring archives brought no results. The search was made even more difficult by the fact that nobody knew exactly what the dress looked like and where it was made.

"According to tradition, the bride's parents were responsible," she said. "So it could have been made in Germany, maybe Munich."

One wedding -- many dresses?

Wien Fiaker vor dem Hofburg

Sisi didn't spend much time at Vienna's Hofburg, where the museum is now housed

The mystery dress worn by 15-year-old Princess Elisabeth upon her marriage to Franz Joseph was for the eyes of family and courtiers only.

"There are contemporary pictures, but she wears a different dress on every one of them," Unterreiner said. "We hope for anything that could help -- sketches, design, anything. We believe that there still could be something out there."

Church donation

Altötting mit Blick auf die Alpen Copy: H.Heine/Verkehrsbüro Altötting

Could church officials in Altötting help solve the mystery?

Following the tradition of the day, the dress was donated to the church -- in this case, to the basilica Maria Taferl on the Danube west of Vienna, and the jewelry and veil to the Bavarian town of Altötting, a place of pilgrimage for Catholics.

In 1857, three years after the wedding, Maria Taferl's inventory lists a priestly robe adorned with Sisi's embroidery.

That's not an uncommon occurrence, said Christian Schüller, curator of Maria Taferl's treasure room. The 30-centimeter-wide (11.8 inches) embroidery with intricate flower garlands was cut from the dress and sewn on an ivory-colored mantle that local priests wore until the 1950s, Schüller said.

Preferring cocaine over clothes

Kokainspritze von Kaiserin Elisabeth

Sisi's cocaine syringe is now kept at the museum

Clothes apparently were of little importance to Vienna's imperial court, Unterreiner said. Little information on textiles and clothing exists in old Habsburg archives and collections that can provide information on almost everything else -- from Sisi's monthly chocolate bill to her traveling apothecary, complete with cocaine syringe.

Neither the Vienna Sisi museum nor Schüller wanted to comment on gown's value. For fans of the restless and tragic empress, its intrinsic value goes beyond mere money.

Kitsch icon

Ausstellung: Verfreundete Nachbarn: Deutschland - Österreich im Haus der Geschichte, Bild 2

Even the name of the movies was different than that of the real empress

Elisabeth was never particularly popular during her lifetime: She spent very little time at the court in Vienna and only found a huge following after she was stabbed to death in Geneva in 1898.

A formidable Sisi cult developed in the 1950s after a series of internationally successful movies, starring actress Romy Schneider, on a highly romanticized version of Elisabeth's life.

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