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A fashionable gown from the first Victorian bustle era, Harper's Bazar, June 20, 1874 

A fashionable gown from the first Victorian bustle era, Harper's Bazar, June 20, 1874

History of 1870s Bustles

Bustles, worn off and on between 1790 and 1890, were one of the many foundation garments used by fashionable 19th-century ladies to modify their figures into the latest style. There were two major bustle eras in the age of Queen Victoria. Our bustle comes from the first one, which occurred between 1869 and 1876.

 

Two typical bustles from the early 1870s, Harperís Bazar
September 21, 1872 
During the late 1850s and 1860s, women of fashion had worn hoop skirts or crinolines from three to six feet in diameter under their skirts. The shape of the hoop slowly evolved from a round circumference to an oval one with the woman standing towards the front of the oval. In 1869 large hoops and crinolines disappeared from stylish womenís wardrobes. The amount of fabric used in the skirt remained the same, however, but now the fashion required that it be pulled to the back, piled at the waistline, and then allowed to cascade to a train. The bustleís role was to help support the heavy draperies this style demanded.

At first women wore bustles built into petticoats or small hoop skirts, but by 1871 the majority of bustles were separate from the crinoline and came in a variety of shapes, sizes, and materials. They could be made of pads, springs, ruffles, wires, or curved boning. Most of them were homemade. Despite the variety of looks, bustles from the early 1870s usually were shallow, covered the sides and back, and ended at the bottom of the hips.
 

Patents for "fishtail" bustles began to appear in 1875. This one, dated February 15, 1876, added boning in an "X" shape at the top for extra support.

Patents for "fishtail" bustles began to appear in 1875. This one, dated February 15, 1876, added boning in an "X" shape at the top for extra support.

click on image for large version


Our bustleís style was first described in 1872, but did not take off in popularity until 1875. Resembling a fishtail, this bustle differed from the common 1872-1873 form by being knee-length, narrow, adjustable, and having flat side panels that tied in front. Petersonís Magazine wrote in September 1873 that the best sort of bustle:

"...should be long and narrow, and consist of twelve steel springs encased in muslin and kept in place with elastic bands. This bustle should add nothing to the breadth of the hips, but is required to push the skirts far out backward, and is long enough to support them half their length, making them flow out graceful instead of falling in below a projecting pouf at the waist as they have recently done."

A pattern for this red cashmere "fishtail" bustle was included in the August 8, 1874 issue of Harperís Bazar.

A pattern for this red cashmere "fishtail" bustle was included in the August 8, 1874 issue of Harperís Bazar.


In September 1876 Harperís Bazar announced that "All bouffant tournures [bustles] are abandoned." The year earlier bustles had already begun to deflate, and by the next year many fashionable women considered the bustle an optional garment. In 1876 the bustle had not disappeared completely yet, and the fishtail-style actually gained in popularity. As Harperís Bazar noted after announcing the abandonment of large bustles, "The long slender bustle that holds the lower part of the skirt away from the feet will be retained." Demorestís Magazine also noted the declining popularity of the bustle in the Fall of 1876, but added that "In reality, there is no figure that does not require, in the center of the back, the addition of some narrow and slightly projecting [bustle], which, gradually tapering out serves as a support to the drapery below." Demorestís went on to explain their reasoning by writing "that otherwise there would be a falling in at the back, which would be very ungraceful, and in opposition to all present ideas."
 

This style bustle, advertised here as being able to support the weight of heavy winter skirts, replaced the softer, weaker bustles of the 1870s. Harperís Bazar, January 21, 1888


Fashion magazines included illustrations of the fishtail-type bustle through 1883. This bustle probably lasted for so long because of its adjustability, specifically its ability to lay flat in a drawer, be worn deep for earlier fashions, or worn shallow for later styles.


In 1883 a bustled fashion emerged that required a bustle to sit at the top of the hips, instead of the waist, and jut out perpendicular to the body creating a shelf. The new style needed a deeper, stronger bustle than the fishtail-type, and ultimately rung the latterís death knell.


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©2002 Wisconsin Historical Society
Last updated April 02, 2002