The Bustle Dress – A Brief Overview, Part 4

In our last post, we focused on the influence of the princess line style on the Mid-Bustle Era. Today, we take a step back to fill in the reset of the picture with non-princess line styles.

Le Moniteur De La Mode, No. 47, November 1876

To continue our story, the Mid-Bustle Era was an interesting time in the fashion world where the bustle silhouette style characteristic of the early and mid-1870s give way to 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. Below are some examples, albeit idealized, of the basic style which could be found for both day and evening wear:

Le Moniteur De La Mode, No. 27, July 1876

Journal des Demoiselles, September 1878

Petersons_Sept 1880

Peterson’s Magazine, September 1880

Journal Des Demoiselles 1880

Journal Des Demoiselles, 1880

Revue de la Mode_1880_1

Revue De La Mode, 1880

Journal Le Printemps October 1881

Journal Le Printemps, October 1881

Journal Le Printemps June 1881

Journal Le Printemps, June 1881

Journal Des Demoiselles 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 their predecessors, relied on structured undergarments to modify the body’s appearance- something that dress reformers did not have in mind.

We start with this circa 1878-1883 day dress:


Day Dress, c. 1878 – 1883; McCord Museum (M2003.76.1.1-3)



The silhouette is definitely later 1870s with a long cuirass bodice extending down over the hips and there’s no bustled train at the top. 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.

Color-wise, 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.

Here are some more examples of daytime dress styles, starting with this one from circa 1877-1878:

Constructed from a gold silk taffeta, this dress consists of a separate bodice and skirt. The bodice is cuirass style, extending over the hips, and has full sleeves and trimmed with rows of knife pleating. The is constructed in two pieces with a flat front of horizontal and vertical ruched strips and a rear has fullness running the entire length of the skirt. One could argue that this look is a trained or “bustled” but it still flows on a vertical plane. Here’s one more example of this style from circa 1878:

Afternoon Dress, c. 1878; Museum at FIT (70.65.6)

This dress is constructed of a combination of solid and patterned dark blue silk taffeta for both the skirt bodice. On the bodice, the patterned silk frames the center front of the bodice and ends in the collar. On the skirt, the underskirt is solid blue and the two layers of swagged material on the dress front is the black patterned material- it’s hard to tell and you have to really blow up the picture to see it. From the two above examples, it’s interesting to note that both are either monotone or near-monotone in color and use various textures such as ruching and gathering to create the design effects.

Finally, here’s one last example that utilizes designs elements that were very characteristic of late 1870s style, contrasting fabrics in two different colors/patterns:

Day Dress, c. 1870 – 1880 (more likely 1878-1881); De Young Museum (52.12.1a-b)

In terms of silhouette, the bodice is a cuirass bodice with three-quarter sleeves combined with double layer skirts. Most of the bodice and the underskirt are a green silk taffeta and the front bodice and outerskirt are a blue-colored floral patterned silk jacquard (or similar, it’s hard to tell from the picture). The patterned silk fronts on the bodice make for a harmonious contrast with the solid colored silk, especially since each silk’s luster is a bit different. For the skirts, the two fabrics provide a similar contrast and the v-shaped outerskirt draws the eye upwards, following the path of the patterned silk. Using a v-shaped outskirt in a contrasting fabric was one style device that was often used during this period.

Next, we turn to evening wear such as this circa 1877 dinner dress created by Worth:

Worth, Dinner Dress, c. 1877; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.69.33.3a, b)

This is another brilliant illustration of the late 1870s silhouette- the bodice and overskirt are constructed of a gold-colored silk jacquard in a floral pattern combined with a pistachio-green front underskirt that appears to be made of silk taffeta. Below is a closer view of the silk jacquard:

Close-up of fashion fabric.

Below are views of the rear train. As with the first example, the drapes from the bottom. The double-layered train has an underlayer of the same green pistachio used in the front underskirt, shown off through a series of folds, and is combine with an overlayer of the fashion fabric; it’s an interesting design effect. Below are some more pictures that show off the train:

Side Profile

Rear View

The above pictures give a really dramatic view of the train, especially with the rear bow giving the illusion of being the only support for the gold jacquard train.

Close-up of rear

Generally speaking, Mid-Bustle Era style emphasized vertical lines but at the same they could also emphasize horizontal lines as with this reception dress from the early 1880s:


Reception Dress, French, c. 1881 – 1883; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.38.61a, b)

The dress silhouette is definitely slim and cylindrical with a bodice that’s somewhat shorter than what one normally finds with dresses of this period and a very high-waisted skirt to compensate. The dress is constructed from a gold silk satin with alternating layers of ruffles and gold metallic appliques; the same appliques are also on the bodice front and sleeve cuffs. The multiple layers on the dress front emphasize horizonal lines while keeping within the overall silhouette. Below is a closer look at the bodice front and upper skirt:


Close-Up Of Front

One interesting thing of note here is that in contrast with the prevailing norm of a longer bodice coming over the hips, this one has a shorter bodice and relies on a form-fitting upper skirt to do the work.


Side Profile

From the side profile, one can discern a small amount of fullness running up the entire length of the skirt that creates a small train. Here’s some rear views:


Three-Quarters Rear View

Rear View

 While not as elaborate as the front, the back of the dress has three layers of knife pleating extending to about mid-way on the dress. In contrast to the front, vertical lines are emphasized. 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.

Luis Alvarez Catala, “Woman Before a Mirror,” 1878

And just for one final example, this circa 1880 evening or ball gown:

Evening/Ball Gown, c. 1880; Augusta Auctions

The silhouette on this evening or ball gown (it could really work for either, in our opinion) is interesting in that while it maintains the cylindrical silhouette characteristic of the period, the skirt has been shaped so that a train of sorts is created that runs down the entire skirt length and there’s no train leading away from the skirt hem. Both skirt and bodice are constructed from a yellow silk taffeta trimmed in white lace. The bodice is an extreme cuirass shape with deep points, both front and back. The flatness on the front of the dress is emphasized with horizontal rows of pleats and ruches trimmed with white lace. To the rear, the fashion fabric is fairly plain with two layers of lace trim running along the hem.

The side and rear profiles give a good idea of how the skirt is shaped in the rear and we can see a deep gentle pouf running down from the upper to mid-skirt combined with fullness leading to the bottom. While this skirt follows the basic design aesthetic of the period, it’s made some gentle departures with the rear skirt shaping and the lack of a train of any sort.

The above examples and those in the previous post give only a hint of the variety of Mid-Bustle Era styles and there were a wide variety of fabrics, colors, and trims that were utilized and the possibilities were endless. Stay tuned for more… 🙂

(To be continued…)


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