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Kyshah Hell is an accomplished chameleon that dreams in color not black and white. This somewhat Celtic Yankee W.A.S.P. fancies herself a Gothic Glamour Punk. “I could never pigeon hole myself into a single category. I have too much fun playing dress-up across the board.”

Ms. Hell lives in Danbury, CT. with the love of her life, Steve, and her soul mate Glamour Puss, the pre-requisite black cat. Send accolades and anti-Goth slurs to her via e-mail.
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Ill | Chris Beetow


Curious Contraption: The Victorian Bustle
Kyshah Hell
Fashion has always gone hand in hand with sexuality. Not only does it attract members of the opposite sex, but it also highlights alluring portions of the body. And looking good to the opposite sex is just as important as looking good for oneself. When items as curious as the Victorian bustle come into fashion, one must wonder how it came into style; why the male of the species found it attractive considering the exaggerated feature it portrayed and highlighted.
From a 21st century viewpoint, it is easy to see how this posterior plumping style is so sexual, but in the supposedly sexless Victorian era was it a subconscious reaction to the repressed? Throughout history, all cultures and time periods have found all kinds of body parts to sexually objectify and many alluring female styles have their roots in male desires. Women are always looking for ways to make themselves more enticing and the bustle is the perfect example of this. It seems to defy logic, but it makes perfect sexual sense and is perhaps the most curious western fashion of the last 100 years.
The bustle was in style for two distinct periods in the Victorian era. The early period was from 1869 until 1876 and the later period from 1883 through 1889. What is so curious is how it came into fashion twice and how it fell out of fashion for those six years in between. Other than the evolution of fashion, there is no clear answer to this question but one can always speculate.
Both periods had slightly different shapes to the bustle that reflected its evolution as well as innovation. In the 1850’s and 1860’s, women wore crinoline skirts that eventually evolved into gigantic cages that could hardly fit through a doorway. They were so popular that women of every status participated dressing in this style. For the upper classes, by the late 1860’s, the crinoline had nowhere else to go but up. When the new bustle style debuted, it was ridiculed and laughed at by the lower class women. This leads me to conclude that separation of the classes may have been a mitigating factor in the adoption of the bustle by upper class women. Interestingly enough, the crinoline continued on in fashion until about 1878.
The early bustle period was marked by extreme embellishment. Ruffles, trains, bows, tassels, and extra folds of fabric were all employed to trim dresses. The skirts’ shape was one of general largeness. The bustle fell off the rear end and continued down to the floor. Excess fabric was a hallmark of this period. By 1876, the bustle began shrinking but the skirt still remained voluminous and by the end of the early bustle period the posterior bump had moved into fabric folds and down to the back of the knee and lower in a fan style. This streamlined fashion remained for another six years before the bustle came back bigger that ever in 1883. A nearly shelf-sized shape marks the later bustle period.
The contraptions that held up skirts ranged from coiled springs to rounded horsehair bags. The full-length bustles that marked the sloping style of the early period were cumbersome to sit in as well as carry and control while walking. The second period’s bustles were lightweight and collapsible for easy sitting. Clean, simple lines marked the later bustle period. The embellishments of the early period were completely gone but the layers of fabric remained. The bustle successfully hid a multitude of flaws until 1889, when the Aesthetic movement began to sew its seeds.
The evolution of the bustle style is evident, but where did something so outrageous come from? As stated above, this is, of course, a question for speculation. Many clothing styles seem to evolve out of the pure ingenuity of its designer and the sheer desire for consumption by the wealthy. For all of the history of clothing, more has always been more. The bustle was a way to show wealth and superiority through yards and yards of fabric. It even required more fabric than the crinoline style that preceded it. Only the well-to-do could afford excess fabric for embellishment and the desire for the upper classes to remain isolated from the lower classes both in rank and in style was fierce. This has contributed to any number of seemingly impossible fashion styles through the ages. For a woman who had to keep a home clean and food on the table, the bustle must have seemed ridiculous. Trying to work with a wire contraption tied to your rear end must have been impossible at best.
Although upper class ladies did not have to work and could present themselves fashionably, hard-to-negotiate costumes isolated upper class women even further. In an ironic twist of fate, secluding their bodies kept these women in a prison of their own making, perpetuating the myth of the weaker sex just as the corset did. Sex in fashion is always an underlying theme.
Victorian men must have benefited from the sex appeal the bustle style exuded. A man’s imagination could have run wild wondering what part of the style was all woman and what part was manufactured. One must remember that in this time period, a woman could cause quite the scandal if she flashed an ankle in public! For the most part a man could only dream of the flesh under the clothing. The bustle style made the posterior appear larger which in turn caused the breasts to look larger as well. Add to that the corseted waist and you have one sexy silhouette.
In the 1850’s, the Cakewalk, an African-American slave dance, was invented on a Florida Plantation. This line dance with leg kicks eventually evolved into an exaggeration of the body figure with the posterior jutting out and the breasts pushed forward; just as the corseted bustled figure mimicked twenty years later. (Incidentally the Cakewalk was the first American dance to cross over from black to white society.) A heavily racist cartoon of the black female performing this dance quickly became synonymous with the Cakewalk. This caricature became known as the Hot-n-Tot Venus. One can make many obvious parallels between this ‘Venus’ and the corseted female form wearing a bustle. By the late 19th Century, the Cakewalk was the most fashionable dance in the civilized world, and only fashionable women sported the bustle style.
Sexually suggestive styles, like the bustle, will always occupy a special place in the hearts of fashion lovers everywhere. When looking to the past for inspiration, Gothic fashion lovers can romanticize the subtle sexiness of the Victorian bustle.
One can easily create a modern bustle using items found around the house. I myself fill a rectangular shaped piece of stretch net fabric with a crinoline skirt of any size and tie it to my waist. When I put a skirt on over it with a bustle shape you’d never know the difference. Skirts can also emulate the bustle style easily with attached strings that bunch the fabric (such as the offering from Calypso in Shopping Sources below).
Antique Victorian skirts with bustles can be found in a range of prices and conditions and many are repairable and adaptable to modern sizes. The bustle itself is such an extraordinarily constructed foundation garment that today one could even wear it as an accessory on the outside of a garment. It has even inspired today’s fashion designers like Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano. The bustle has a silhouette that reeks of romance and Goth at the same time. Take time to appreciate its ingenious construction as well as its place in the fashion hall of oddities.
Shopping

Calypso Clothing in New York City makes a high fashion bustle style skirt every season in a variety of colors and fabrics. The cost is around $150. 424 Broome Street, New York. 212-274-0449

Gallery Serpentine makes an elaborate PVC bustle skirt that can be ordered in any fabric.

Starkers! makes a tieback version of the Victorian bustle skirt.

Corinthia’s Victorian Costume & Millinery has a lovely bustle ensemble.

Amazon Drygoods sells Victorian bustle patterns, for those of you who prefer to fashion your own authentic bustle ensemble.
Resources

Truly Victorian Costume Patterns from the era itself. Includes a Victorian silhouette history.

Real Victorian Clothing Images 1830-1899

The Vintage Connection Zine has a section on how to clean and care for antique clothing.

A short history of the Cakewalk at The Dance History Archives.