views updated May 29 2018


Exaggeration of the feminine posterior has been a periodic theme in Western fashion for several hundred years. The pulled-back overskirts of late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth-century mantuas (loose-fitting gowns) emphasized this area, and pads or "cork rumps" sometimes supported the swagged-up styles of the late 1770s and 1780s. Even early-nineteenth-century neoclassical dresses often featured a small back pad—a socalled artificial hump—to give the high-waisted line a graceful flow. As waists lowered and skirts widened, the pad was retained, and by the late 1820s it was called a bustle. Throughout the mid-nineteenth century full skirts were enhanced by a small bustle made of padding, whalebone, or even inflatable rubber. In the 1870s and 1880s, however, both the skirt support and the silhouette created by the bustle became the focus of fashion.

In an age when men and women were considered to have distinct social roles, the late nineteenth century assumed the natural forms of the two genders also diverged. One arbiter of etiquette and aesthetics, "Professor" Thomas E. Hill, explained that, in contrast to the broad-shouldered male, the female figure is characterized by narrow, sloped shoulders but width across "the lower portion of the form." He stated that to avoid looking "masculine and unnatural," women's dresses should be tight on top while dressmakers are "permitted to arrange tuck and bow and flounce without stint below the waist." These enhanced derrieres proportionately lessened women's small waists, produced by corseting. The idea that women are naturally steatopygous or fat-buttocked is no more aberrant than the late-twentieth-century idea that all women should have "buns of steel."

The bustle, also known as a tournure, pannier, or dress improver, could be made in a wide variety of materials and shapes. Some types were full length, such as sprung steel half hoopskirts called crinolettes and petticoats with adjustable inset steels. Many bustles, however, were made to pad only the rump area, secured to the wearer by a buckled waistband. These could be simple rectangular- or crescent-shaped pads filled with horsehair or other stuffing, but more intricate forms included down-filled devices and puffed or ruffled constructions of crinoline or stiff fabric such as tampico hemp. Woven wire mesh bustles were advertised as not only cooler than padding, but uncrushable, eliminating the need for furtive rearrangement after sitting. Other structures featured several metal springs arranged vertically, placed a large crescent-shaped spring horizontally below the waist, or had projecting steel half hoops that adjusted with lacing and claimed to cleverly fold up when the wearer sat down.

The material used to create bustles was seemingly endless: M. V. Hughes in her memoir A London Child of the Seventies (Oxford University Press, p. 84) recalls that an acquaintance used The Times newspaper to achieve her effective bustle, saying, "I find its paper so good, far more satisfactory than the Daily News." Petticoats, often with layers of ruffles down the back, helped smooth the line of the bustle pad and support bustled skirts.

By 1868, the fullness of women's skirts had moved to the back, and a bustle was needed to support fashionable puffed overskirts and large sashes. The high back interest continued in the early 1870s as the bustle gradually swelled in size. Although the back of the skirt remained the dominant feature, the silhouette slimmed down after about 1875, when the skirt and petticoats, drawn back low and close to the figure and usually flowing into a long train, were often unsupported by a bustle. In the early 1880s, the bustle returned in dramatic proportions, often forming a shelflike protuberance at right angles to the wearer's body. An examination of images of fashionable women in extreme bustle dresses would lead an impartial observer to conclude—as Bernard Rudofsky proposed in the 1940s—that skirts shaped in this peculiar way must contain a second pair of legs behind the women's normal ones.

The wardrobe of a woman of the time included a chemise, drawers, corset, corset cover, stockings, and several petticoats, as well as a bustle. The bustle's size was accentuated by all the features of fashionable dresses, including tight sleeves, tight-fitting bodices with back tails, and elaborately constructed skirts with back poufs, swags, gathering, pleating, draperies, and asymmetrical effects. While a few called for reform of feminine dress for artistic and health reasons, most accepted women's convoluted clothing as in accord with High Victorian taste, with its love of the ornate, ostentatious, and overdone. A fashionable woman, dressed in a horsehair or spring bustle, layers of undergarments, and rich, heavy fabrics trimmed with fringe, did present an upholstered effect, similar to an overstuffed sofa of the time, both expensive, decorative objects. In 1899, Thorstein Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class introduced ideas, such as the conferring of status by "conspicuous consumption," reflecting the bustle period's excesses. Yet to most contemporaries, highly contrived feminine clothing was not seen as contradictory to the spirit of this "age of progress," but rather as a concomitant of civilization, showing commercial enterprise and mechanical ingenuity and firmly establishing the "civilized" division of the sexes. Throughout the period, although ridiculed, the bustle silhouette was widely accepted and worn by women

from all classes, as well as by little girls with their short skirts. As The Delineator noted in February 1886 (p. 99), some women did not wear a bustle pad, "except when such an adjunct if necessitated by a ceremonious toilette," relying instead on a flounced petticoat to support the drapery of simpler dresses.

After about 1887 the bustle reduced in size and skirts began to slim. The skirts of the early 1890s featured some back fullness, but emphasis had shifted to flared skirt hems and enormous leg-of-mutton sleeves, and bustle supports were not as fashionable. With skirts fitting snugly to the hips and derriere in the late 1890s, however, some women relied on skirt supports to achieve a gracefully rounded hipline that set off a small waist. While not as extreme as examples from the mid-1880s, the woven wire or quilted hip pads worn beyond the turn of century show the tenacity of the full-hipped female ideal.

Despite some historians' view that bustle fashions were surely the most hideous ever conceived, this very feminine silhouette has continued to fascinate. In the late 1930s, Elsa Schiaparelli made playful homage to the bustle in some of her sleek evening dresses, while late-twentieth-century bustle interpretations by avant-garde designers, such as Yohji Yamamoto and Vivienne Westwood, have utilized the form with historically informed irony.

See alsoMantua; Skirt Supports .


Blum, Stella. Victorian Fashions and Costumes from Harper's Bazar 1867–1898. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1974.

Cunnington, C. Willett. English Women's Clothing in the Nineteenth Century. London: Faber and Faber, 1937. Reprint, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1990.

Gernsheim, Alison. Fashion and Reality: 1840–1914. London: Faber and Faber, 1963. Reprint as Victorian and Edwardian Fashion: A Photographic Survey. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1981.

Hill, Thomas E. Never Give a Lady a Restive Horse. From Manual of Social and Business Forms: Selections. 1873. Also from Album of Biography and Art. 1881. Reprint, Berkeley, Calif.: Diablo Press, 1967.

Hughes, Mary Vivian. A London Child of the Seventies. London: Oxford University Press, 1934.

Rudofsky, Bernard. The Unfashionable Human Body. New York: Doubleday and Company, 1971.

Severa, Joan. Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840–1900. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1995.

Waugh, Norah. Corsets and Crinolines. New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1954.

H. Kristina Haugland


views updated May 18 2018

bustle The simple dictionary description of a bustle is ‘a pad, or wire framework, worn beneath the skirt of a woman's dress, to expand it behind; a dress-improver’. This usage is found in the 1770s and is recorded in a letter to the Lady's Magazine of 1786. It is, essentially, a nineteenth-century term, used increasingly from the late 1820s until the disappearance of the bustle from fashionable dress in 1889. However, various aids to change the natural female anatomy at the back of the waist and around the hips had been devised from the fourteenth century onwards. These usually took the form of a padded roll tied around the waist and were depicted in contemporary engravings or caricatures. The practice of emphasizing one or more areas of the female anatomy is found throughout the history of fashionable dress and the bustle was only one in a considerable array of undergarments which assisted with this process. It is a wholly impractical structure which distorted the natural curves of the body. Today, examining surviving examples and reading the advertisements of the period, it is impossible not to admire the sheer ingenuity which informed the construction of an item destined not to be seen by anyone other than the wearer and her maid. Lightweight wire, collapsible steel, whalebone, horsehair, and inflatable gutta-percha were used at various times to create or strengthen bustles. They are a tribute to the nineteenth-century delight in new materials and techniques. Undoubtedly they were constricting but they are usually very light in weight and are, in their use of colour, pattern, and imaginative techniques, unintentionally, witty.

The rise and fall of the bustle spans nearly the whole of the nineteenth century. In the early years the high-waisted, fluid dresses only needed a small pad attached to the back of the waist, but this became fuller, and by 1815 it was a separate entity. Gradually, as the waistline reverted to a natural line in the 1820s and 1830s, the crescent-shaped pad became larger and could be layered with one or more additions of diminishing size. Rows of stiffened cotton, like starched frills, were also used or the two types were sometimes combined. By the late 1830s, when dress skirts were widening, a padding was inserted between the dress fabric and the lining to emphasize the area over the hips. This became a rounded, separate bustle once more between 1841 and 1846. By 1849 the discreet euphemism ‘dress-improver’ was in use, and by 1853 bustles were being made with rolls of crinoline (a mixture of horsehair and linen).

In the late 1860s, as fashions changed, leading to a flattening of the front of women's skirts but compensating by placing emphasis on back fullness, the crinolette (a streamlined, hooped petticoat with back emphasis only) and then the bustle gave support. Initially a few steel or whalebone strips were inserted into a petticoat to support the weight of the ruched-up back of the skirt, but a rounded structure of steel hoops, whalebone, or horsehair quickly became a permanent attachment to the top of the crinolette.

The terminology also changed with the introduction of the French word ‘tournure’ as yet another polite word for bustle. This was a structural, full-length petticoat with integral bustle, which emerged between 1870 and 1873. In 1871 it was reported that it rose ‘high above the waist and is of vast dimensions.’ A brief respite occurred in the mid to late 1870s until the final phase of the bustle began in 1881. It steadily increased in size until it reached its full magnitude in 1885 as an ugly but substantial shelf-like structure. These came in various styles and materials.

Full-length half crinolettes (like aprons but worn at the back and tied at the front) had frills of cloth, horizontal adjustable steels, horsehair padding; half-length versions had collapsible springs and, in line with the health-conscious reform lobby of the 1880s, ‘Health Braided Wire Bustles’ gained popularity. This American design was marketed as light, strong, pliable, and healthy; it came in several layered and rounded variants and sizes and was intended to support ‘the best shapes in the fashionable world’.

By 1890 the bustle had passed from fashion forever and although the term is still used it indicates back interest on a garment, such as bows, loops of fabric, a band of frilled, and layered fabric at the back of the waist — but not a structure under the garment.

Valerie Cumming


Carter, A. (1992). Underwear: the fashion history. Batsford, London.
Newton, S. M. (1974). Health, art and reason: dress reformers of the nineteenth Century. John Murray, London.
Probert, C. (1981). Lingerie in Vogue since 1910. Thames and Hudson, London.

See also clothes; erogenous zones; fashion; female form.


views updated May 29 2018


Women wore bustles underneath the backs of their skirts for several centuries beginning in the sixteenth. Bustles consisted of various objects, including cushions, pads, and frames made of wire and wood, that were tied around the waist or directly attached to a woman's skirts. The purpose of the bustle was to add fullness or shape to the skirt, and it was often used in combination with farthingales, which were stiff hoops, or petticoats, that were worn as full underskirts.

The design and filling of bustles, and the manner in which they were worn, changed from century to century, and even from decade to decade. Bustle types related directly to the kinds of dresses currently in style. They were much needed with the full skirts of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, and were used along with farthingales. But when slimmer dress profiles of the mid-seventeenth century were in fashion, bustles were not needed. This cycle occurred again in the nineteenth century. In the 1870s bustles were out of fashion because women were wearing dresses made of smaller amounts of cloth. Fuller dress styles were introduced in Paris in 1880 and London three years later. The bustle that accompanied them was made of a cushion filled with straw, which was sewn directly into the dress. This bustle also included a number of steel half-hoops placed in the dress lining, which thrust out the dress behind the waist.

From the late nineteenth century on, bustles were occasionally worn only with ball gowns. For the most part, however, they have been out of style throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century.


Cunnington, C. Willett, and Phillis Cunnington. Handbook of English Costume in the Seventeenth Century. Boston, MA: Plays, Inc., 1972.

Payne, Blanche, Geitel Winakor, and Jane Farrell-Beck. The History of Costume. 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

[See also Volume 3, Sixteenth Century: Farthingales ; Volume 3, Seventeenth Century: Petticoats ]


views updated May 23 2018

bus·tle1 / ˈbəsəl/ • v. [intr.] move in an energetic or noisy manner: people clutching clipboards bustled about. ∎  [tr.] make (someone) move hurriedly in a particular direction: she bustled us into the kitchen. ∎  [intr.] (of a place) be full of activity: the small harbor bustled with boats.• n. excited activity and movement: all the noise and the traffic and the bustle.bus·tle2 • n. hist. a pad or frame worn under a skirt and puffing it out behind.


views updated May 18 2018

bustle1 bestir oneself busily, XVI. perh. alt. of †buskle, frequent, of busk prepare, hurry (- ON. búask); see -LE. Not certainly identical with ME. bustele (XIV).


views updated May 29 2018

bustle2 frame or pad thrusting out a woman's skirt behind. XVIII. of unkn. orig.

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