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Baby Got Back: The Bustle Periods of 1870s vs 1880s Fashion

Updated: Jan 27, 2022

I always struggle when looking at extant garments from the 1870s and the 1880s to determine which decade it's actually from. I usually have quick, tell-tale signs when looking at a garment to identify a rough decade, or in many cases, at least a five year period of time when a certain aspect appeared in fashion history, but for some reason, certain aspects of the 1870s and 1880s always trip me up. I think it has something to do with all of the extra flounces, ruffles, and trims.

Whenever I'm looking at extant garments or old photographs, especially with the 1870s and 1880s, I'm always thinking to myself, 'are those pleats at the hem 1872 or 1881? Is that weird extra fabric at the hips 1871 or 1885?' I'm not sure I'll ever quite figure that out (the 1870s and 1880s are probably my least favorite collecting period, and as a result I have very few items from them), but through this, I hope to have a reference guide as to what happened when, and maybe I'll remember it next time I'm dating garments. Ultimately, I've determined, it comes down to whether baby's got back, or in other words, just how big is that bustle?

early 1870s late 1870s mid to late 1880s

For this particular post, I've gone through the Met's extensive online collection of 1870s and 1880s dresses to try and give myself a visual representation of styles and fashions of the time period. These, of course, aren't definitive - the Met's collection showcases the high-style, in the best condition examples, and most likely the most up-to-date (for that time period at least) fashionable examples available - open source and online. Additionally, their collection is vast, helping to cover a lot of ground in a little bit of time.

I've also scoured all my print resources to look for general identifying characteristics for each, which I've outlined below. I imagined if I have this difficulty in telling the decades apart, others do too (or you just want a handy guide...of sorts), and I figured I'd help us all out by breaking down the subtle differences that may help when dating extant garments or photographs.

At a glance

There are three distinct silhouettes when looking at the 1870s & 1880s:

  1. The first bustle period - 1870-1875

2. The 'natural form' period - 1876-1882

3. The second bustle period - 1883-1889

First, let's look at the skirt shape and bustles for each:

Skirts - 1870-1873

This period's skirts are characterized by the high, soft, round bustle. According to the Met, "a waistline rising slightly from 1860s was offset by the visual subterfuge of pulling all the fabric of the skirt into an airy bustle or pouf at the back." Fabric was pulled from the front of the skirts toward the rear adding a polonaise, and creating specific draping to give fullness at the sides and back of the skirt, while the front remained relatively flat.

There's a slight shift of the skirt silhouette in the early 1870s from an elongated and elliptical shaped hoop skirt to a soft, high bustle. When putting two photos side by side, the difference is there, but subtle.

1860s Afternoon Dress Early 1870s Dress

Skirts - 1874 to 1882

By the mid 1870s, the idea of a high bustle went out of fashion. Instead, the bustle was positioned low on the rear, adding to the elongated silhouette, known during this time as the natural form.

Extant garments illustrate tightly fitted and elongated bodices which continued through the hips. The skirts fell downward to the ground, relatively straight from the hips. All of the dimension was pushed toward the train of the garment. They weren't exactly hobble skirts, but I imagine it was more difficult to walk, with limited movement in the skirt to the knees. Fashion plates depict a 'fishtail' style train, with flounces and ruffles to create this mermaid style effect trailing behind the women as they walked. I haven't found too many extant garments that accurately depict this, but the image to the right captures it fairly well. Of course, fashion plates highlighted the most exaggerated silhouette of the period, and while extant garments attempted to copy the images, they usually never quite captured them exactly.

The bustle of this period was relatively tame. Undergarments helped created this low push of fabric from the waistline, further accentuating this 'natural form.' Of course, this 'natural form' wasn't exactly natural per se, but more closely resembles a woman's figure than many of the other periods of fashion history. The center image below illustrates this tightly fitted skirt to the knees, with the train extending outward from there, much like in many of the fashion plates and the photograph above.

Although the bustle was tame during this natural form period, the addition of flounces and trims along the skirt was not. The 1870s saw advancements in machine sewing, and designers and seamstresses took advantage of this, adding detail and texture to both the front and the back of the skirts. This is another key identifier between mid to late 1860s skirts and early 1870s skirts. The heavy addition of trims continued throughout the 1870s and into the 1880s.

Texture on the front also meant excess of texture to the back. The addition of tapes sewn into the skirt gave the wearer choices, altering the skirt depending on the occasion or function one was attending. The tapes could be let out for a long flowing train for an evening event, or they could be pulled in below the rear to create a fishtail, or they could create a polonaise over a large shelf bustle as the silhouette changed into the 1880s. One dress in particular from the Met's collection, c. 1880-1885, showcases this inclusion of tapes really well, and the skirt could easily be modified to fit the constant bustle height and width changes. This also worked well for those that couldn't afford the many dresses necessitated by polite society. By changing the skirt shape, one could wear the same dress for several different occasions, without the added expense of several different tailored dresses.

Skirts - 1883-1889

The bustle came back in full force, bigger and better than ever around 1883, continuing into

the late 1880s. This is known as the second bustle period, and utilizes a 'shelf' bustle. This second bustle started off fairly modestly, but then grew to epic proportions after 1885, before falling again in the late 1880s. Special crinolines were created to support the heavy skirts and create the giant, protruding rear end, as well as to support the weight of a train. Several different types of bustles, crinolines, and petticoats were sold in catalogs or made at home to achieve this silhouette. These skirts are extremely heavy, and pull on the back of the bodice, so robust and equally heavy undergarments were needed to keep the silhouette and skirt from deflating.

Another somewhat unique aspect of 1880s skirts are the asymmetry. Trims, fabric draping, and pleats provided unique texture to the front of the skirt, and set the stage, if you will, for the large bustle party at the rear. I'm not exactly sure where this love of asymmetry came from, but it pervades the majority of American and European styles from the mid 1880s.

I personally am not a fan of all this asymmetry, as it makes it difficult to steam and lay right on a mannequin - or maybe I just don't have the secrets to dressing mannequins for these styles yet!

One other odd thing about 1880s skirts is this phenomenon that I like to call the 1880s mullet.

When you're looking at a mid-to-late1880s extant garment, it looks pretty normal and straightforward in the front, but then you see it from the side, and BAM - intense bustle party in the back! This is one of the main difference between the first bustle period and the second. Here's some fabulous examples of this extension, with the skirt's depth protruding well beyond what you'd expect when looking at the front.

The bustle height and shape declined toward the end of the 1880s, and clothing moved to a more defined silhouette in 1890: a cinched waistline, larger hips, and an S-shaped curve enhanced by gored skirts. Both of the images below are from around 1888-1889.

Next, we'll look at the bodice shape.

Bodices - 1870-1873

The overall bodice shape remained relatively similar to late 1860s garments. The proportions between the bust and the waist remained short, however, the introduction of a peplum at the waist helped to elongate the body and is one of the largest differences. Additionally, a polonaise, or bodice open at the waist with a flounced overskirt at the back, helped create the extra-ness of the full bustle at the rear.

Bodices - 1874-1882

A shift in the ideals of a woman's silhouette happened around 1874-1876. The distance between the bust and the waist increased - shaping helped through corsets - and clothing began to hug the curves of a woman's figure below the hips. This created a conical skirt in the front, a low bustle below the hips, which then flowed into a long train at the rear. I'm not sure as of yet what socio-political change happened to drastically influence fashion, and will require a deep dive into the cultural context of the mid-1870s. That's for another day, though!

Bodices during this time period are referred to as cuirass bodices, or form fitting, long waisted, boned bodices. They hugged the body, creating a long, slim silhouette, and boning helped minimize wrinkling or creasing in the fabric, further enhancing this elongated form. Princess seams also helped to create these elongated bodices. These seams, also known as a princess line, were created without modifying a piece of fabric through central waist seam and darts, but instead were created with cutting pattern pieces to fit. You can usually distinguish a princess seam from a dart through the following:

- lack of horizontal waist seam

- elongated vertical seams continue from the underarm to below the hips

- the dress or bodice looks as if it is all one piece

Cuirass bodices lack the horizontal waist seam and were made solely with princess seams. Additionally, these cuirass bodices typically buttoned tightly up the entire length of the front of the garment.

Gowns made for upscale or fancier occasions in this natural form period were influenced by the 18th century. Ball gowns, evening gowns, and wedding dresses utilized a square neckline decorated with elaborate lace to exaggerate one's femininity.

Bodices - 1883-1889

Besides the change in the length of the bodice, I don't really think too much changed in terms of bodice construction during the 1880s. You'll continue to see a extremely fitted, boned, button up bodice throughout the rest of the 1880s with high collars. The streamlined, heavily corseted bodice remained the norm, and most upper class garments were made with heavy silk taffeta to help accentuate the lack of creasing along the tiny waist seams and fuller hips.

The shoulder shape changed slightly toward the end of the 1880s, to include slight Italian sleeves, where the shoulder height was slightly higher, but fitted through the upper arm. This, of course, transformed into the second wave of the gigot sleeves, first seen in the 1830s and 1840s.

There are definite areas I'm sure I'll be forever fuzzy, but I feel better about these shifts. Ultimately, when looking at an entire garment, the bustle shape will have to be the main identifier, with other elements, such as trims, further narrowing the period in which the garment was made.

I hope this helped, and until next time - happy dating!

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