Curious Contraption: The Victorian Bustle
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
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
Both periods had slightly different shapes to the bustle that reflected its evolution as well as innovation. In the 1850s and 1860s, 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 1860s, 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 periods 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 mans 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 1850s, 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 youd 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 todays 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.
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
elaborate PVC bustle skirt that can be ordered in any fabric.
makes a tieback version of the Victorian
Corinthias Victorian Costume & Millinery
has a lovely bustle ensemble.
sells Victorian bustle patterns, for those of you who prefer to fashion your own authentic bustle ensemble.
Truly Victorian Costume Patterns
from the era itself. Includes a Victorian silhouette history.
Real Victorian Clothing
The Vintage Connection Zine
a section on how to clean and care for antique clothing.
A short history of the
Cakewalk at The Dance History Archives