Defining the Silhouette: Lily Absinthe Looks at the Bustle Era Further…

The Bustle Era is a fascinating period in 19th Century fashion history and it never grows old for us here at Lily Absinthe. Bustles, or Tournures, came in a variety of styles and were made from various materials.  By the early 1870s, dresses had become elliptical with the flat side towards the front. To achieve this silhouette, it was necessary to utilize undergarments that would shape and mold the outer dress to the desired shape.

Peterson's Magazine, October 1870

Peterson’s Magazine, October 1870

Le Beau Monde Cover, c. 1875.

Le Beau Monde Cover, c. 1875.

Above is the fashion plate ideal. Below are some examples from the Early and Late Bustle Eras:

Afternoon Dress, French, c. 1872; Constructed by Charles Worth; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.1110a, b)

Afternoon Dress, French, c. 1872; Designed by Charles Worth; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.1110a, b)

Above is an example from the early 1870s. Note the fullness of the skirt in the back. This is a relative restrained version of the silhouette that was prevalent during the 1870s. Below is a more restrained version of the afternoon dress, also designed by Worth in 1883. Note that the bustle has a sharper angle than the earlier one:

Picture 008

Afternoon Dress, French, c. 1883; Designed by Charles Worth; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.664a, b)

And just in case you didn’t get enough, here’s another afternoon dress designed by  Worth from 1885:

29.942a-b_side 0002

Afternoon Dress, French, 1885; Designed by Charles Worth; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.627a, b)

So what about the Mid-Bustle Era? Good question…the short answer is that the bustle didn’t disappear but rather it became more muted, moving down behind the knees and more close to the body. We’ll start with the beau ideal of the fashion plate:



75.92a-b_side 0002

Afternoon Dress, American, c. 1880; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.967a, b)


Day Dress, American c. 1880; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.678a, b)

So, how was this silhouette achieved? Below are some of the myriad of possibilities:


Designers were constantly looking for the next great thing. Pictured is one such style, in this case it was even patented- US Patent 131840, c. 1872

One distinct Style was that of the “lobster bustle” which takes its name from its shape resembling that of lobster.

The Lobster Bustle

The Lobster Bustle, Austrian, 1873; Constructed of cotton and horsehair; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2002.251)

Bustle, American, 1870s; Made of cotton; Metropolitan Museum of Art ( 2008.89)

Bustle, American, 1870s; Constructed of cotton; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2008.89)


Bustle, Great Britain, c. 1883; Constructed of cotton and metal; Metropolitan Museum of Art (1985.23.3)

The above three examples are of an extended bustle that was often referred to as the “lobster bustle” because of its distinct style. So how did the dress look over the lobster bustle? Well, look here:


Day Dress, c. 1873; McCord Museum (M20277.1-2)

For a more muted bustle look pads might be used and especially for the Mid-Bustle Era of 1878 – 1883, below are a few more examples:

Bustle, c. 1880

Bustle, c. 1880

Bustle, c. 1880s; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.38.23.282)

Bustle, c. 1880s; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.38.23.282)

And now for a little satire…fashions during the 19th Century were often the source of satire for their seeming impracticality. While the crinoline was probably first and foremost the biggest target (pardon the pun), the bustle also attracted satirical comment. Here’s one example:


Punch Magazine, 1870

The bustles illustrated above are just a few of the many varieties of bustles on the market during the Bustle Era and were designed with the goal of enhancing the silhouette of the outer dress to its maximum effect (with varying success). One thing you will notice in looking at all the above examples is that styles tended to bleed from one period to the next. As is the case with nearly all eras of fashion, there are no bright lines that sort each into a neat compartment but rather it’s a blur as one era moves to the next.

In much the way steel girders define the shape of a modern building, underpinnings during the Bustle Era defined the silhouette of the person wearing a garment. As is the case today, people went to great lengths to shape and define their bodies so as to achieve a specific look. As much as we may look back at this era in amusement, things have not changed all that much, only the materials and devices have. 🙂

Leave a Reply