“Fashion is born by small facts, trends, or even politics, never by trying to make pleats and furbelows, by trinkets, by clothes easy to copy, or by the shortening or lengthening of the skirt,” – Elsa Schiaparelli
“Fashion is architecture: it is a matter of proportions” – Coco Chanel
When I mention the bustle (or the corset) to friends and colleagues, I can not help but notice how the Twentieth Century cultural associations will immediately be applied in their responses. Bustles and corsets have after all been vilified in the previous century, seen as the root of all evil from which twentieth century dwellers were rapidly running away. But as Thoreau reminds us, “every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new.”
With an innate tendency to defend the underdog, I decided a month or so ago to play devil’s advocate and became the champion of the bustle for this Halloween, to demonstrate to all slanderers that this poor article of underclothing does not deserve all of the derision it has received. To do this effectively, I will need to place our poor defenseless bustle in context. Perhaps it is not the tyrant we have imagined it to be, but merely, a simple unknowing foot-soldier in a war waged between some distant and unseen forces.
Let me start with it’s ancestry and birth. About 1840 was the start of the crinoline period. The ideal shape for this period was an hour glass torso covered in a close-fitting bodice with a natural waist-line, and a very full, bell-shaped skirt.
At first, the look was achieved with layers and layers of petticoat. Eventually, to the relief of women everywhere, the layers of petticoat were replaced with hoops, lessening the weight of the skirts and making their wearers less prone to drowning and combustion. The hoop provided fashion houses the opportunity to amplify the the size of the bell-shaped skirt. And amplify they did.
The hoop increased in size and ornamentation, until it reached its peak in the early 1860s.
Fashion has this marvelous capability to survive, to find solutions for the problems it creates. The fashionable ladies of the Western World needed somewhere to move, a new space in which to expand. Instead of making the hoop larger, fashion made it go to the back. With the weight of the skirt concentrated in the back, the fashionable woman could keep her full-skirts but be far more aerodynamic and graceful. It was modern and sexy compared to the bell-shaped contraptions that always had a risk of ringing as they moved.
Wealth was moving from the countryside and into the city. Land-based wealth could no longer compare with that of the industrialists, and investors. New wealth with money to burn on clothes lived and socialized in the city not in country courts and palaces. The modern city was a bustling (no pun intended) place. A woman in a full-scale hoop skirt could not get very far. Thus was born the graceful, aerodynamic elliptical hoop.
At first, the circumference remained the same, with just the weight shifting to the back. No surface area was lost for ornamentation, and the shift in fashion was not so great to be unpalatable or too extreme. But the shift in weight was a huge idea. Not since the previous century had skirts had contraptions that unevenly distributed the weight. Disregarding the train – which is something else – the shape of the fashionable skirt was symmetrical and the weight was even in the nineteenth century until the arrival of the elliptical hoop. It had not been since the later 18th century with its huge panniers or significant padded bustles that there had been a contraption for an uneven skirt. The stripped-down Empire style arrived, replacing elaborate contraptions with dresses that could be compared to see-through undershirts.
But the shift from oppressive bell-skirts to something – dare I say it – a bit more sexy must have been very welcome, and designers ran with it. Fashion is always fetishistic, and where the emphasis during the hoop period had been the small waist and expansive size of the skirt, it now moved to the waist and back, or the woman’s behind.
Industrialization and the rise of the sewing machine reduced the cost of labor. Decoration of the gown, not it’s circumfrance became the order of the day, and the female derriere was to receive the bulk of the frills in the late 1860s. Fashion had found a new extreme or fetish.
Waistlines became higher as well to show off the new skirts. Notice the gowns in the pictures to the right and left, and how the waist is an inch or two above natural. They lowered again in the mid 80s.
Although the shift to the full-fledged bustle can be seen as a natural progression, I like to think it was hurried along by the fall of the Second Empire. There was yet another coup in France, then the center of fashion. The republican party was organizing to overthrow Napolean III. Empress Eugenie remarked “If there is no war, my son will never be Emperor,” so war on Prussia was declared. It was a catastrophe. Napolean III surrendered to the Prussians, and his Empress, then the leader of fashion in Europe and therefore all the west, fled to England in exile, to live an artistically memorialized tragic existence in England after the death of her husband and eventually her son.
Whether it was that the world was ripe for change and therefore embraced the bustle and the overthrow of the Second Empire, or if the overthrow of the Second Empire made the world ripe for change and therefore embrace the bustle we will never know. But the bustle was as huge a shift in fashion as say that which occurred in the 1960s, though the particulars are, of course, different.
The bustle has a bad rep amongst women in 2008. It’s associated with Victorian male patriarchy, sexual repression, and uptight, suffocating morality. Actually, it was an innovation. If one has worn the fashion of the 1850s or 1860s, and then worn a bustle from 1870s or 1880s, one would appreciate the difference. Yes, there are constraints, but as in any period of fashion, it is the choice of the woman that determines to what extent they are imposed. A woman may chose to tight lace her corset. Also, she may chose how large she would like her hoop. Photos of different women from the same year will demonstrate that women could differ dramatically in their adherence to the “fashionable.” But one undeniable aspect of the bustle is that it is far more aerodynamic than any hoop, more comfortable, and easier to move in without the fear of looking like a bell or a toilet plunger.
The elliptical hoop evolved into the first bustle period bustle, which was a very narrow hoop skirt with a concentration of hoops in the back and, in most cases, a rigid support arched bone to make the back extend outward from the wearer. The structure was stabilized by a supporting peice of fabric that rested flat falling from the waistband until the knees. They came in many designs, but were hoop-like for the entire first-bustle or “soft” period.
The new shape had an asymmetrical profile, and the gowns that went on top of the bustles embraced this new found release from cross-sectional symmetry. Skirt designs became elaborate to accentuate the form. Decoration became complex and compartmentalized.
All good things however must come to an end, and so did the first bustle period after a good eight year reign. What followed is called the “Natural Form,” where women retained the same bodices complex skirts and the same philosophy behind the decoration, but removed the bustle. Small pads were worn on the bum instead, and skirts were sewn tightly to the females’ legs in a “fishtail” style, that highly fashionable women were recommended to remain standing.
Even during the Natural Form period, the bustle remained the silhouette of choice for formal events, such as weddings or court. The fashion of regular daytime wear and of evening social events though was the highly constrictive “fishtail.”
The bustle wouldn’t stay away long. By 1883 it was back in full-force, though changed. Whereas the First Bustle Period is the “soft” bustle, the Second is the “hard.” The bottoms of fashionable ladies were no longer swathed in frothy poufs, but instead became shelf-like. The designs on the skirts became asymmetrical, and the waistlines and lines of the torso fell to accentuate the length of the torso, and the width of the shoulders. By the 1880s, the bustle form had become and institution, and no longer needed to dress itself up to justify its existence.
The bustle’s lifetime was about twenty years. By the start of the Gay Nineties, it was nowhere in sight. The bustle era had died without resurrection. Women did wear bum pads in the nineties, until eventually even that disappeared.
Emphasis had switched to the sleeves, which reached dramatically large sizes. The shoulders and sleeves were made to appear larger to emphasize a tiny waist. Though the restriction from the skirts had diminished and taken a more graceful, un-boned structure, corsets were ‘innovated’ to allowed for tighter lacing and smaller waists. Bodices became blouse-like and billowy to emphasize the bosom in contrast to the waist, a departure from the close-fitting bodices of the bustle period.
The bustle did not have a Third Period. With the political instability and economic revolution of the twentieth century, it became a symbol of a contemptuous past, of all that was cast off culturally by our social revolutionaries. It is associated with romantic tragedies, gothic terror, female neurosies, social injustice, and malevolent ghosts, though at the time of its inception it was a breath of fresh air, a welcome change, and an expression of feminine sexuality. There are lessons to be learned from the fate of the bustle, the type that are replete in history. Time will eventually judge our current fashions, too, and likely unfavorably.
The project that I will document here will be an ode to the bustle, and attempt to prove, at least to my immediate company that the bustle deserves respect and admiration. Ritual is ritual. It’s only the props that change, but the basic end result is the same. Though we may all praise the freedom that comes with lycra (a scientific advancement, not a social one), our functional classless jeans (are they genuinely classless?), and the easy cut of a T-shirt (Byronic blouses are much more comfortable, though harder to maintain if they are made of old linen) they will become outmoded and disliked. I imagine that though the specific complaints may use a different vocabularly, these styles will be regarded by posterity as being worthy of as much derision as the bustle, when we continue to confuse advances in human thought and science with improved intentions. Most of history is, after all, not just steps forward.
I entreat all of my readers to pause, take a deep breath, and give a moment of silence to the lost bustle, who died in unjust derision and slander.
*To my knowledge, the copyright on all used images has expired. Please inform me if the case be otherwise.