Styles are defined by their silhouette and nowhere is this more evident in the styles of the 1870s and 1880s which were built upon skirts being draped towards the rear and supported by a supporting structure known as the bustle (also known as the tournure). As described previous in this previous posts and others, the size and positioning of the train might have varied but the overall effect was still the same. So how was this achieved? Simply, draping fabric and fastening to the rear only works with the lightest of fabrics, in almost all cases support is required and that’s where the bustle came into play. Bustles varied in styles and shapes and were made from various materials, ranging from ones constructed of elaborate steel cage structures to ones that were little more than a pillow.
A somewhat simplified chart depicting the three major Bustle Era styles.
Below is a selection of some of the bustle styles that were out there during the 1870s and 1880s:
The above examples show two of the more common bustle styles, the “lobster” and the pillow. The “lobster” style gets its name from its resemblance to a lobster shell and was held rigid by steel boning or reeds.
Here’s a semi-rigid example from the 1870s (probably more mid-1870s):
Bustle, c. 1870s; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2008.89)
The above style employed a fabric shell, typically made of a tightly woven cotton fabric with steel boning or reeds. This style was also common during the 1880s:
Bustle, 1883; Metropolitan Museum of Art (1985.23.3)
The above example is interesting in that while it’s similar to the 1870s example, it differs at the top where a large pad has also been installed- no doubt to help create the more sharply defined silhouette characteristic of the Late Bustle Era dresses such as this one:
Evening Dress, American or European, c. 1884 – 1886, silk; The Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.63.23.3a, b)
Here’s another typical example from 1885 that employs an open cage-like structure made from flexible steel bones secured by tape strips:
Bustle, 1885; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.3095)
Steel or reed boning where not the only materials in use as demonstrated by this 1873 example utilizing horsehair padding:
Bustle, 1873; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2002.251)
The idea of the bustle creating the dress silhouette can especially be seen from this example:
Bustle, c. 1870 – 1888; Metropolitan Museum of Art (1972.209.48)
The example below is especially fascinating in that its shape dates it: late 1870s, most likely circa 1878 – 1880 (although the museum has is labeled 1870 – 1888). Note that the silhouette is slender from the waist to mid-way down and then flares out in the demi-train style that was characteristic of the later 1870s such as with these examples:
The above bustle examples are on the complex side and could almost be considered works of art on their own. However, there were more simple designs out there such as various types of pads:
Bustle, c. 1895 – 1905; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.44.48.8)
Bustle Pad, made from linen and stuffed with horse hair. Victoria & Albert Museum (T.57-1980)
Bustle Pad, French, c. 1885 Glazed calico trimmed with silk cord and stuffed with what appears to be straw; Victoria & Albert Museum (T.337-1978)
And there were some other interesting designs:
Bustle, Steel Frame, c. 1884; Victoria & Albert Museum (T.131C-1919).
British, c. 1871. Metropolitan Museum of Art (1985.27.4)
The above examples are only a small sampling of what was available and no matter what style a bustle came in, its primary job was to support the dress and help define its shape. When we reproduce 1870s and 1880s fashions, we are constantly mindful of the supporting structures that are necessary for wearing these fashions in the most optimal way and they are almost as important as the dresses themselves.