Back in Full Swing:

Victorian Bustle Dresses

       Arguably the most absurd creation in all of fashion is the bustle—but for many collectors, there is a certain inexplicable attraction to that strange form of fashion. Though it may be difficult to fathom today, the bustle was actually considered a great improvement when it first appeared in the Victorian era, around 1869. Its original name, in fact, is quite telling: Magazines of the period called it a “dress improver”—because it was considered a blessing after the atrocity hoops had become in the eyes of post–war women.
       During the bustle’s early Victorian years, fashion still had memories of crinoline days. Paletot-like
jackets and bodices with full peplums predominated, and bodices that looked like jackets continued in popularity. What was new was the skirt. “Polonaise” skirts are typical of the 1870s and were designed to look like an overskirt that V–ed over a heavily decorated petticoat.
       Adding to this “half–dressed” look were bodices that clung like second skins and were designed to look like corsets, complete with lacing and scooping necklines. To cope with the new, enlarged derriere, the rounded waist of the ‘60s gradually became pointed, and squared or V–ed necklines created some balance in evening wear.

       Unfortunately for the women who had to wear these concoctions, heavy materials also came into vogue. Often upholstery–like in design and weight, these fabrics were embellished with heavy jet beadings, braids, tassels, and faux jewels—making some dresses weigh 20+ pounds. (Most of which seemed to rest at the rear—oh, what back–aches they must have had!)
       By contrast, the middle and lower classes were blessed with considerably less opulent and extreme house dresses. Taking up less fabric, having little trimming, and with the bustle de–emphasized, these dresses were clearly necessary if any sort of movement was to be allowed.
       Eventually, by 1875, the “Princesse” cute came into almost exclusive use; the bustle dropped to the thigh and almost completely disappeared. Yet, by 1883, the bustle was back in full swing (literally!).
       The new bustle, however, was more drastic and severe. C.W. Cunnington notes in his book English Women’s Clothing In the Nineteenth Century, that the bustle’s “admirer’s declared that it helped to set off the carriage of the back and gave an artificial dignity; no one seemed to find it alluring.” But at least one (anonymous) period writer found women’s backsides “gloriously sized.”
       The new emphasis was on hips and tailored suits (often consisting of a skirt, dickey, and jacket/bodice). Sleeves and high collars were often extremely tight. Though day dresses were mostly trainless, evening gowns could have trains of royal lengths.
       The bustle was at its largest in 1885—and was often extremely shelf–like. To help add proportion, as the bustle grew larger, the fashionable waistline elongated. From here, the bustle became passé rather quickly; in 1887 it was considerably smaller, and by ’89 had disappeared (although skirts still contained excess gathers or pleats at the derriere and small cushions were still worn under skirts for at least another decade).
       Perhaps it was the “awful truth” about bustles that was their ultimate demise. As one period fashion magazine put it: “[in a] high wind...every steel stood out in high relief under the most bouffant drapery; upper skirts broke away from the under and displayed the sorry fact that the latter were only shams of lining calico with patches of good material where the overskirt was cut open.” It’s more likely, however, that the increase of women in the workforce and the new popularity f women’s sports (such as bicycling—which must have been incredibly awkward in a bustle) was to blame.

       But despite (or perhaps because of) their on–again–off–again history, bustle dresses are steadily on their way into the “rare” category of Victorian dresses. Skirts contained such a volume of fabric, that many were cut up and used for other purposes. Bodices from the period are relatively easy to find; most sought after, however, are complete ensembles: from the 1870s, a bodice, skirt, and overskirt (and sometimes an additional “puff” worn directly over the bustle), and from the 1880s, usually a less elaborate bodice and skirt. Fortunately, one of the best places to find complete bustle dresses is online. Auction sites like eBay, and some of the dealers listed in the Links section are excellent places to begin shopping!




(c) Copyright 2000 by Kristina Harris.