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 or “Natural Form”, 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 circa 1867:

Day Dress, c. 1867; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.40.164.1a–c)

This dress is constructed of a medium-blue silk taffeta, all in one solid color. There’s no trim except for some white piping running along the edge of the bodice hem and some lace sticking above the collar. Silhouette-wise, we see the elliptical skirt shape that had been slowly developing from the mid-late 1860 with most of the skirt’s fullness pushed towards the rear. Below is a good side profile:

As can be seen from the above pictures, the train is simple, just consisting of the dress being shaped to hang more towards the rear and flattening out on the front. But as with fashion in general, further developments would be happening as can be seen with this circa 1870 day dress where we see the bustle look begin to take a more definied shape:

Dress, c. 1870; Metropolitan Museum of Art (1980.409.1a–c)

The fashion fabric is a green silk taffeta with a black floral pattern. The bodice is short, cut with a v-neck that’s filled in with an insert of the same fabric. The overskirt and underskirts are also of the same fashion fabric with a relative short outer skirt taking on more of an apron-like appearance in the front and  lengthening out in the back.  Finally, the underskirt is full, being completely visible both in the front and back and providing the train.

The silhouette has clean lines one can definitely make out elliptical style that marked late 1860s styles and carried over into the early 1870s.

Below are some close-ups of the dress fabric and buttons:

Here is another example from 1870 that gives a similar profile view:

Day Dress, c. 1870; Kent State University Museum, KSUM (1983.1.127 ab)

Here we see an overskirt that both acts as a train in the rear and a short apron in the front. The underskirt is still prominent on the sides and front and extends full length to the ground. Finally, here’s another example from circa 1872-1875:

Day Dress, c. 1872 – 1875; Metropolitan Museum of Art (1986.304a, b)

Side Profile

In the above pictures we see the continuation of earlier trends in that the outer skirt is relatively short and mostly gathered directly to the rear in a well-defined pouf. At the same time, The inner skirt pretty much acts as the dress front and rear with some added decorative panels. Compared with earlier styles, it appears that the emphasis is on the skirts and train while the bodice is somewhat minimal. The fashion fabric is a silk lavender-colored taffeta with decorative stripes. The edges of the various skirts, hems, bodice, and sleeves are trimmed with wide gold-colored silk satin stripes with red piping.  Below is a close-up of the side panels:

Below is a picture of the inner skirt top. The waistband is simple and one can see buttons that were used to hold up sections of the upper skirt so as to create poufs which further enhance the trained effect around the hips and rear.

Detail of upper skirt/waistband.

And here’s a close-up of the fashion fabric itself:

Detail of the fashion fabric.

The above examples only hint at the variety of dress styles that were available during the early 1870s. 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, no matter what specific style was selected, they all shared the key element that they had the bustle silhouette, a silhouette that 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:

US Patent No. 131840, c. 1872

Early on, the Crinolette was developed and as such it was a half-way point between the earlier cage crinoline and the bustle. This example is from circa 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)

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

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

Bustles came in a variety of styles and made from various materials. This example is utilizes full padding:

Bustle, 1873; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2002.251)

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 circa 1875 bustle pad 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”. 🙂

(To be continued…)



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