The bustle

Bustles shaped American and European fashion in the late 1800s, providing structural support to skirts and allowing for a distinctive silhouette. 

Alexander Douglas patented the “new and improved bustle” on April 21, 1857, eventually reshaping what was seen as the ideal silhouette in the United States and Europe during the 1870s and 1880s.

The ladies’ undergarment basically consisted of a cage fastened around the waist and extending to the back to create a supportive framework for draped, flowing, often multitiered skirts. It replaced the crinoline (think “Gone with the Wind”) as the primary structural support in women’s dresses.

Crinolines posed serious logistical challenges for wearers, with diameters a large as six feet in fashion at one point. Eventually, their design shifted in design to feature a flatter front and a more pronounced posterior to support to dress trains.

Enter the bustle, which provided all kinds of support, focused at the back. Douglas's design called for it to be made out of strips of whalebone "or other elastic material" connected by strips of cloth. Later versions were often more elaborate, with springs and folding mechanisms incorporated into the design.

Despite these innovations, the bustle was without its problems.

The bustle made it impossible for women to sit naturally, or to support their backs while doing so, and inflicted additional strain through the uneven weight distribution of heavy skirts, according to a letter to the editor in an 1888 edition of the The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal.

“Why people should so fashion their dress as to feign a deformity which they have not is uncomprehensive – and of all these incomprehensible deformities the bustle is the worst,” the letter writer said. “The bustle, like the car stove, must go.”

Enterprise reporter

Tory Cooney is an enterprise reporter with a love of features writing. She is vivacious, resourceful and enjoys cooking, quilting, snowshoeing and Post-it-notes.

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