This spectacular veil was handmade for Princess Stéphanie of Belgium for her wedding to Austro-Hungarian Crown Prince Rudolf in 1881. It was an unhappy marriage with lasting ramifications: their union produced a daughter but no son to become heir to the Hapsburg (alternate spelling of Habsburg) throne, and Rudolf committed suicide eight years after the wedding. Archduke Franz Ferdinand then became heir, but his assassination in 1914 precipitated World War I and the end of the Hapsburg Empire. The new Austrian government confiscated all Hapsburg property, making life difficult for Stéphanie and her daughter. To pay for living expenses, the women likely sold some of their personal belongings, including the Hapsburg Imperial Bridal Veil, which is now in the textile collection at the National Museum of American History.
In her memoir I Was To Be Empress (1937), the Princess wrote that the veil, made in 1880, was a gift from the city of Brussels, where "For months the girls and women of Flanders had been busying their nimble fingers in the preparation of masterpieces of lace, intended for their Princess." The veil, 100 inches wide and 123 inches long, was constructed entirely of variations of tiny buttonhole stitches made with a needle and very fine cotton thread. The denser motifs have up to 88 stitches and 102 rows per square inch.
To represent the union of Rudolph and Stéphanie, 21 coats of arms of Belgium and the Austro-Hungarian Empire dominate the borders of the veil, and the Lion of Belgium and the Austro-Hungarian double-headed eagle crest lie at the center. These symbols are surrounded by elaborate ferns, lilies, roses, and other floral motifs on the needle-made background. Delicate rosebud motifs embellish the top of the veil.
Handmade needle and bobbin laces rarely show the date and place of construction, but worked in needle lace at the sides of the veil’s central Belgian Lion motif are "Bruxelles 1880" and "Léon Sacré." Queen Marie Henriette had commissioned Léon Sacré, a famous Brussels lace merchant in the 19th century, to have the veil designed and made by the best Flemish needle lace makers for her daughter’s wedding: "My mother devoted herself indefatigably to the preparation of my trousseau, which was to be as complete and costly as possible."
Stéphanie and Rudolf were married in Vienna on May 10, 1881, when the bride was barely 17 years old. According to the New York Times, "Princess Stéphanie wore a magnificent robe of cloth of silver, with a train elaborate in embroidery, orange blossoms arranged in bunches looping up her dress, and a veil of Brussels lace specially made for the occasion."
So how exactly did the veil end up in our textile collection? Marjorie Merriweather Post, the founder of the Hillwood Museum and Gardens, bought the lace veil around 1925 for the wedding of her oldest daughter in 1927. It remains unknown from whom Post purchased the veil, or for how much. In 1964, Post donated the veil to the Smithsonian, and the artifact has been part of the
textile division at the National Museum of American History ever since.
The Hapsburg Imperial Bridal Veil is currently on loan to the Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens in Washington, D.C. for temporary display in the exhibit "Wedding Belles: Bridal Fashions from the Marjorie Merriweather Post Family, 1874-1958" from June 18, 2011 to January 1, 2012. This is a rare opportunity to view, among other items, the exquisite Point de Gaze needle-lace veil and the dress with which the Hapsburg veil was worn, on the occasion of the wedding of Post’s daughter.
After the display closes in January 2012, the veil will return to the museum. A portion of the artifact may be seen during monthly behind-the-scenes lace tours. Please call 202-633-3826 to sign up. For questions and comments, e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Karen Thompson is a volunteer in the Textile Collection, Division of Home and Community Life, at the National Museum of American History.