The Bustle Dress – A Brief Overview, Part 1

The terms “Bustle Era” and “Bustle Dress” are often tossed around indiscriminately with the vague idea that it describes a dress from 1870 through 1890 or thereabouts. Well, this is true to a degree but it falls short in that there is a lot more depth and subtlety to it and more precision is needed if one is to be able to intelligently discuss women’s fashion during the late 19th Century. It’s as if one were to refer to the period from 1960 through 2000 as the “Blue Jeans Era”- yes, blue jeans existed and were worn but in no way does it describe the fashions of the era.

To begin, the “Bustle Era” could be said to cover the years 1870 through 1890 with a bit of overlap in either direction (fashion rarely puts itself in neat date categories ;-)) and it could be broken down into three phases:

1) Early Bustle, 1870 – 1878

2) Mid Bustle, 1878 – 1882

3) Late Bustle, 1882 – 1890

Now, just to reiterate, the dates that I give are not meant to be precise start and stop dates, but rather rough “fuzzy” parameters and I don’t profess to have the last word in this. With that, let’s proceed.

Bustle Silhouettes - 1870-1890

This illustration gives a rough guide to the changing profile or silhouette of the bustle dress. Of course, as the skirt changes, so does the bodice.

A somewhat simplified chart depicting the three styles.

A somewhat simplified chart depicting the three styles.

In the beginning, the bustle evolved from the earlier crinoline of the 1860s and as the decade progressed, one could see the skirt gradually being gathered in the rear as opposed to the earlier look of it being evenly distributed. Below is an example of a day dress from the late 1860s:

Day Dress 1867

Moving forward to the early 1870s, we see the bustle look begin to take shape (pardon the pun :-)):

This day dress, is British from c. 1870 and you can see the bustle profile consisting of several layers of draped fabric arranged to draw the eye towards the rear.

Day dress, is British from c. 1870 and you can see the bustle profile consisting of several layers of draped fabric arranged to draw the eye towards the rear (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1980.409.1a–c).

Here is another example that gives a better profile view:

Here is another day dress, American, c. 1870 that illustrates the flow of the bustled skirt.

Here is another day dress, French, c. 1870 made of blue silk taffeta that illustrates the flow of the bustled skirt. Note the contrasting patterns of ruffles with straight skirt panels (Kent State University Museum, KSUM 1983.1.127 ab).

And one final example, this time from 1876:

This  is an American day dress from 1876 that in combination with the previous images, illustrates the basic bustle profile from the early to mid- 1870s.  Here you can see the look becoming more refined.

This is an American day dress from 1876 that in combination with the previous images, illustrates the basic bustle profile from the early to mid- 1870s. Here you can see the look becoming more refined.

The above are only three examples of the variety of dresses extant through the period. Trim and decoration could vary, some had trains of varying lengths, and contrasting colors and patterns were also often used. When it came to evening wear (i.e. ball gowns and evening dresses), trains were longer and more fancy fabrics were used.

However, the key element was that the bustle profile was achieved by a combination of artful draping and a defined understructure that served as a skeleton in much the same way a modern skyscraper’s structure is defined by steel girders, no matter what sort of decorative exterior there is. Below are a few examples of what went on underneath:

The first example is the Crinolette which represents the first stage in the development of the bustle, As such, it was a half-way point between the earlier cage crinoline and the bustle. This example is from c. 1870.

The first stage was the Crinolette, which was a half-way point between the earlier cage crinoline and the bustle. Victoria & Albert Museum (T.775C-1913)

Crinolette, c. 1870; Victoria & Albert Museum (T.775C-1913)

Nest, we see an example from 1871 that is more defined as a bustle:

British, c. 1871. Metropolitan Museum of Art (1985.27.4)

British, c. 1871; Metropolitan Museum of Art (1985.27.4)

Bustles came in a variety of styles and made from various materials. Bustle pads were also used which tended to give a more softer look to the skirts. Bustle pads came in a variety of fabrics. Here is one example of a bustle pad from 1875 that was made from linen and horsehair:

Bustle Pad, made from linen and stuffed with horse hair. Victoria & Albert Museum (T.57-1980)

Bustle Pad, made from linen and stuffed with horse hair. Victoria & Albert Museum (T.57-1980)

And here’s another one from 1873:

Bustle Pad, 1873

Bustle Pad, 1873

The above has been somewhat brief and as with all historical costume, there were exceptions but this should give a general idea. Finally, just a cultural note: during the Bustle Era, there were those that considered the word “bustle” to be vulgar and thus, alternative names were used to include the “tournure” or “dress improver”. 🙂

Next: Part 2, the bustle reduces and the profile becomes more upright and streamlined. In the meantime, below are some more images from the early 1870s for your edification:

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