The most intriguing duel fought between women, and the sole one that featured exposed breasts, took place in August 1892 in Vauduz, the capitol of Liechtenstein, between Princess Pauline Metternich and the Countess Kielmannsegg.
It has gone down in history as the first “emancipated duel” because all parties involved, including the principals and their seconds were female. Also, the confrontation was organized and presided over by the Baroness Lubinska, who had a degree in medicine (a rarity for a woman in those days) and was prepared to minister to any wounds incurred.
Before the proceedings began, the baroness pointed out that many insignificant injuries in duels often became septic due to strips of clothing being driven into the wound by the point of a sword. To counter this danger she prudently suggested that both parties should fight stripped of any garments above the waist.
Certainly, Baroness Lubinska was ahead of her time, taking an even more radical take on the (at the time) widely dismissed theories of British surgeon Joseph Lister, who in 1870 revolutionized surgical procedures with the introduction of antiseptic. With the precautions Baroness Lubinska recommended, the topless women duelists were less likely to suffer from an infection; indeed, it was a smart idea to fight semiclad.
Given the practicality of the baroness’ suggestion and the “emancipated” nature of the duel, it was agreed that the women would disrobe—after all, there would be no men present to ogle them. For the women, the decision to unbutton the tops of their dresses was not sexual; it was simply a way of preventing a duel of first blood from becoming a duel to the death.
At the dueling ground on the fateful day, all formalities were carried out to the letter including an attempt at and refusal of reconciliation.
The ladies engaged and, after a few trifling feints and thrusts, a wild slash from the princess brought about a light flow of blood from the countess’ nose. Seeing the injury she caused, the shocked princess, in a stereotypical feminine gesture, threw both hands up to her cheeks.
Just then, the countess lunged and pierced the princess through her right forearm. The sight of the ensuing blood caused the respective seconds to faint.
The footmen and coachmen, who had been ordered to stand some distance away with their backs toward the action, heard the cries and ran toward the women to render aid. Baroness Lubinska, however, decided the male servants had more salacious motives and attacked them with her umbrella, shouting, “Avert your eyes, avert your eyes—you lustful wretches!”
The baroness was once again ahead of her time in sensing the necessary precautions. It was as if she already knew the gossip and speculation that would result from this premier example of what could have become a clothing–optional sport.
The rumors started just as soon as the Princess Metternich and Countess Kielmannsegg cast aside their weapons. Artists and storytellers speculated about the duel, most of their tales centering specifically on the scanty clothes the women wore.
It is humorous that most recounts of this historic event fail to mention two important things: the winner of the duel (Princess Metternich) and the reason why the women came to arms in the first place—they disagreed over the floral arrangements for an upcoming musical exhibition. Bared breasts, apparently, overshadow such trivial details.
The rivalry between “Princess Paulina” and the Countess Kielmannsegg was apparently so well known that it was documented in the Vienna society pages of the British women’s magazine The Lady’s Realm. In one issue, the magazine reported, “The Countess Anastasia, who is Russian by birth, is very ambitious, and has a great talent for arranging entertainments of all kinds, and during the mourning of the Princess Paulina she has come more to the front than ever and has been most indefatigable. She is young enough to be the daughter of her rival in good works, and, like her, is possessed of an untiring energy.”
In the summer of 1892, Princess Pauline was the Honorary President of the Vienna Musical and Theatrical Exhibition and Countess Kielmannsegg was the President of the Ladies’ Committe of the Exhibition, and the two clashed over some of the arrangements for the Exhibition. (Several sources claim it had something to do with the floral arrangements.) Heated words were exchanged, and the two women agreed to settle their differences with a duel. …
The Metternich-Kielmannsegg duel was … an “emancipated duel,” because all the parties involved were women. The duelists seconds were the Princess Schwarzenberg and Countess Kinsky, and a woman even presided over the duel: Baroness Lubinska, a Polish woman who had a degree in medicine.
So why on Earth were they topless? According to Atlas Obscura and the Women of Action Network, that was Baroness Lubinska’s idea. The duel was not supposed to be a deadly one, but the baroness noted, that if a piece of dirty clothing was pushed into a wound, that would would be more likely to become infected.
It would be much safer, she reasoned for the rapiers to touch only bare skin. So she instructed the combatants to strip down to the waist and ordered the male servants off in the distance to look away.
The combatants met in August 1892 Vaduz, the capital of Liechtenstein, and dueled with rapiers to first blood. The Princess Pauline was the victor in the third round, when she was injured slightly on the nose but also drew blood from the countess’s arm. The report in the Pall Mall Gazette says that, once the round ended, the seconds “advised them to embrace, kiss, and make friends.” But the idea of topless duelists captured the imagination of many folks, with images of women, breasts bared and swords crossed, appearing in paintings and erotic photographs of the era.