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All about the Bustle

Updated: Aug 17, 2019

For this week's object, I decided to give an ode to the name of my business: Bustle. It comes from two distinct fashion related terms: (1) a bustle is a garment used to puff up the back of a dress or skirt to achieve a desired silhouette, and (2) the more modern use of bustling the back of a wedding dress. Since not only do I work with wedding dresses and historic costume, I figured the name was perfect.

Earlier this year, I found a coil bustle at auction and jumped on the chance to own it. Historic costume in good condition is somewhat hard to find, and undergarments (even in poor condition) are even harder!

Coil bustle made of cotton and wire coil
c.1880s bustle

Unfortunately, because of the remoteness of many locations in the United States, the lack of the internet, catalog companies, and even the ability to go to a store, bustle styles and composition for particular silhouettes are far ranging.

I know this bustle was handmade, but dating it is a little harder. I'm thinking it falls between 1877-1882, just before the bustle expanded outward from the bum, and the natural bustle form was the height of fashion (seen in the left image below). Below, you'll see the 1880 silhouette at the left, 1885 in the center, and 1889 at the right.

Bustles were often handmade, like this one. Looking at the stitching, it's machine stitched, but the quality is not one of a seamstress, which makes me believe that it was made by the girl or woman who wore it.

If you look closely at the stitching, you'll notice it's irregular shape.

While not in the best of conditions, you can tell it was well worn. The strings are broken and frayed, and the coils rusted and eating away at the thin cotton muslin of the bustle's construction, and the

Bustles in the 1870-1890 evolved in three very different ways. Prior to 1870, you had the hoop skirts and crinolines, creating the oval and bell shaped silhouettes brought into pop culture (and what is most commonly thought of when one says hoop skirts) by Gone with the Wind in 1939.

By 1870, the hoop skirt had altered slightly, with the elliptical hoop toward the wearer's bum to hold up the heavy skirting and polonaise bodice fabric. The dress created a form fitting shape, with ruffles and long trains to highlight the slim waist.

1870 fashion plate with elliptical skirt and polonaise bodice

By 1877, the natural bustle form was adopted, again emphasizing the waist and hips, but emphasizing a more natural hip line. This tapered skirt with an cuirass bodice (a form fitting and long-waisted bodice) lasted until 1882. The center image is from the Metropolitan Museum of Art's collection.

By 1883, large bustles were in again, rising to extreme proportions. These larger bustles lasted until the late 1880s.

Below are four bustles from c.1880 in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's collection - just to illustrate how different each could be!

Check out some other bustles from the Met, or from the V&A. Can you imagine wearing something like this all day, every day?

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