Aa you have no doubt discovered by now, the Mid-Bustle Era or Natural Form Era is one of our most favorite periods of the late Nineteenth Century and it has been a constant source of inspiration for many of our designs, especially because it runs counter to the popular perception of what characterized the “typical” look of the Bustle Era. At the risk of being redundant, we offer some further observations about this relatively short-lived period.
Edmond-Louis Dupain, Elegant Lady Walking Her Greyhounds on the Beach
The early 1880s were an interesting time in the fashion world in which we see the bustle silhouette style characteristic of the early and mid-1870s give way in the late 1870s to a slim, upright, cylindrical silhouette. Often referred to as the “natural form era” or Mid-Bustle Era, the period from roughly 1878 through 1883 saw a dramatic reversal in dress styles: where once the style focused on draping and gathering of varied fabrics over a bustle, the emphasis was now on the controlled use of fabrics and trim to create a style with clean, sharp lines.
Peterson’s Magazine, September 1880
Below are some examples, albeit idealized, of the basic style which could be found for both day and evening wear:
Journal Des Demoiselles, 1880
Revue De La Mode, 1880
Journal Le Printemps, October 1881
Journal Le Printemps, June 1881
Journal Des Demoiselles, 1881
In examining this relatively short-lived period, it must be noted that “natural form” is somewhat of a misnomer in that the term refers to the ideal of the reform dress movement which centered around the idea that clothing should enhance the body’s natural form rather than constrict and re-shape it. The styles of 1878-1883, like there predecessors, relied on structured undergarments to modify the body’s appearance- something that dress reformers did not have in mind.
So with that said, let us explore a bit…
We start with this reception dress from the early 1880s:
Reception Dress, French, c. 1881 – 1883; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.38.61a, b)
Close-Up Of Front
Three-Quarters Rear View
Just for completeness, here’s some details:
Detail of bodice.
The above dress illustrates several elements of the Mid-Bustle Era style and in particular, the silhouette which is slim and cylindrical with a minimal bustle. Day dresses tended to have either no train or at most, a demi-train while evening dresses and ball gowns retained a longer train. However, either way, the train was low, flowing from the bottom of the skirt rather than off of an elevated bustle.
The use of rows of vertical pleating on the rear of the skirt combined with rows of flounces trimmed with embroidered leaves on the front help emphasize the vertical lines. Finally, the ruching on the bodice front also reinforces the idea of vertical lines.
And because we just can’t resist, here is Charles Worth’s take on the wedding dress:
Wedding Dress, Charles Worth, c. 1879 – 1880; Victoria & Albert Museum (T.62 to B-1976)
The dress silhouette is characteristic for a formal dress of the Mid-Bustle Era. Also, while it is not easy to make out, the trim on the front and sides also helps to emphasize the vertical lines. Here’s one more from Worth, circa 1880, where the trim pattern on the front can be readily seen:
Finally, one more example to illustrate some of the trends happening in the late 1870s – early 1880s:
Day Dress, c. 1878 – 1883; McCord Museum (M2003.76.1.1-3)
Note in the above example that the bodice extends over the hips and that there is no bustled train. At the same time, there is a train extending out, above the hem of the skirt; an train extending out at a low level was one style variation found during this period and in extreme cases was known as the “mermaid tail.” This was probably meant as more of a reception dress and a dress meant for everyday activity. Also, note that these dresses often came equipped with a “train hook,” a small loop attached to the end of the train that allowed the dress’ wearer to pick up end of the train so it would not drag on the ground.
In terms of color, we see the use of two shades of red with silk for the lighter shade and velvet for the darker shade that read as a jewel tone. The use of velvet for the dark burgundy red provides a contrast to the lighter silk in that the velvet traps the light while the lighter silk provides a more reflective luster. This is a common effect used during much of the late 19th Century but a beautiful one nonetheless.
No discussion of the Mid-Bustle Era would be complete without some discussion of the princess line style. The princess line style further refined the era’s trend towards a more upright, slender silhouette. The primary characteristic of the princess line style was that the bodice and skirt were one unified body which provided a large, continuous space for decoration. Below is one example of the princess line style:
Day Dress, Princess Line, c. 1878 – 1880; Victoria & Albert Museum (CIRC.606-1962)
Close-Up Of The Front
The dress design attempts to create the effect of a contrasting bodice/outer skirt and under skirt; the lines are somewhat reminiscent of an 18th Century coat worn with an outer and under skirt. The dress itself consists of a top and rear train made from a blue silk woven in the Jacquard manner combined with a white ruched silk running along the complete and at the bottom of the train. Running along the hem are rows of white silk knife-pleating and the top is trimmed with white lace around the neck. Finally, there is a minimal trailing “tail” on top of the train. Finally, what is striking is the contrast between the silk floral leaf top and train combined with rows of ruching providing a contrast between smooth and textured fabrics as well as color and fabric.
Here is another example, only this time it employs contrasting colors while keeping the same fabric type:
Day Dress, Princess Line, c. 1878; National Museum, Prague (H2-193316)
Three-Quarter Side View
Three-Quarter Rear View
Style-wise, this dress is simpler than the first example in that there is simply two contrasting colors with little added except for rows of knife-pleating along the hem and some ribbon trim on the front and shoulders and some lace around the neckline.
Ultimately, while the Mid-Bustle/Natural Form Era style strove to create a silhouette that was more “natural” to the wearer’s body (as opposed to the bustle/train), it was still a product of sculpting and shaping through the use of foundation garments, principally the corset and various underpinnings such as these:
We hope you have enjoyed this small tour through the late 1870s/early 1880s and it helps illustrate some of the basic Victorian ideas about fashion and style.