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Posts Tagged ‘Victorian Fashion’

Here are the beautiful photos from Highland Park. One could not ask for a better backdrop than the voluptuously, lacy lilacs.

I tied a sash around the waist, which was unnecessary. But I thought it jaunty, and have lost a few pounds unintentionally from when I did the bodice fitting. I never tight lace for fittings, so tying the corset looser was not an option. I hoped the sash would compensate for the looser fit, and it is pretty.

The photos were taken by the incomparable Annette Dragon. She does incredible work!

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In general (though not only), popular attraction between members of the opposite sex can sometimes be based on what is viewed to be powerful and/or capable. In the 20th century, sociologist have often interpreted the corset and quest for the wasp waist as subjugation and subjugation by men. But, they failed to look at the social and economic alternatives given the economy and technology of the time.

Beating away the stork

Beating away the stork with 20 - 80 lbs per square inch of pressure.

On average, women in the 19th century had five children, and would have been pregnant at least that many times. Pregnancy was not only dangerous in the 19th century, it was also lonely and time consuming. There was no such thing as pregnancy chic. Modesty and propriety, as well as safety, demanded that a woman remained confined in the last months before the birth. Middle and Upper class women at least enjoyed the luxury of having aid in the raising of the child. Lower classes were not so lucky. Taking a quote from a 19th century working class woman who was the 7th of 14 children, her mother was “a perfect slave. Generally speaking she was either expecting a baby to be born, or had one at her breast.” Hardly sounds appealing.

The fertility rate among the middle and upper classes (in Britain at least) was on the decline from the 1840s through the end of the 19th century. There is at least one recent article out there (by Davies M: Corsets and Conception…) that claims that the corset is responsible for the decreased fertility from uterine and organ distortion. Suppose, though, that the corset was both a cause of decreased fertility, as well as an expression of the desire for it.

Even the Victorians had a grasp of what the corset would do to their reproductive and childbearing capabilities. Contemporary doctors determined that the corset produced anywhere between 20 and 80 lbs. of pressure per square inch on the female torso. Proto-gynecologists (all male), warned that women should not be made aware that the corset could curb the likelihood of pregnancy or else they would employ it for that purpose (which is sinful and controlling). Dr. Kellogg (of Road to Wellville fame) wrote that it was shameful for women to wear corsets during pregnancy. There was also talk, again by man, that the corset was often used to disguise pregnancy with the “insertion of busks” and that tight lacing would lead to an abortion of the unwelcome fetus.

Were women aware of the effects of the corset? Likely. They weren’t stupid, or at least any stupider than they are today. Logically, then, it would appear that corset-wearing was not done to please men.

A tight corset and small waist implied a lot of social power. Firstly, the woman didn’t need to make a living. In 1863, The Lady’s Friend, it was written that upper class women “are ladies not necessitated to earn a living, they can do without health or strength – a genteel beauty they must have.” A tight laced corset makes manual labor very difficult for many reasons, so a corseted waist and waist training implied that the woman did not schlep around kids, clean the house or do laundry. Secondly, the lady likely had a maid to tight lace her. Third, she was not pregnant. Pregnancy in unmarried women spelled in disaster. In married ones, it meant confinement, possibly death, and increased future expense.

Fourth is the hormonal aspect. A thick waist implies a large production of androgens (including testosterone). Androgens can have some beneficial effects on female bodies. They increase competitiveness, ability to handle stress, dominence, assertiveness, and willingness to take risks. These are great. But they are not attributes that would be popular for women to have in the Victorian economy. Imagine, for example, you are the mother mentioned above, having those 14 children, and you were responsible for providing for them financially through labor with Victorian standards of pay, and medical care. Not possible. Even without having to care for children, a woman’s ability to survive and thrive in the Victorian era would be better shown in social connections, not by her ability to run the decathalon or walk into a boardroom and take charge of subordinates. Sports lead to injuries that lead to infections or disfigurement. Boardrooms to possible exposure to the demi monde.

19th Century Prostitutes in a Police Station. For a woman to be associated with crime could ruin her prospects in the marriage market.

19th Century Prostitutes in a Police Station. For a woman to be associated with crime - either as victim or perpetrator - could ruin her prospects in the social and marriage market.

The small waist implies increased estrogen: docility, decreased ability to handle stress, and unwillingness to take risks. If a woman is established, risk-taking would be ill-advised. If she was economically stable and a good social and domestic manager, she would not have to demonstrate an ability to handle stress. The ever- so-gallant Victorian notion of “women and children first” likely had a hormonal component, not just a wardrobe one. For though the Victorians were not educated much in biology or aware of hormones, we know that hormones and the perception thereof, regardless of time period, have an effect.

Obviously, the Victorian world was more physically and medically dangerous. There were no antibiotics or aspirin, and doctors were just as likely to kill you as cure you. The first modern paid police department was not founded until the 1820s in London, and then in 1838 in Boston, and they had not yet acquired the 20th century respectability they would later gain. Those women who has dealings with police – either as victims or perpetrators – were thieves or prostitutes. A woman to be associated with the police and with crime would lose her value on the social and marriage market. Keeping the wife and children at home or amongst friends wasn’t a bad idea for so many reasons.

Women were also aware that pregnancy could kill you, and if it didn’t it would confine you to a room in your home. In such a case, inclinations towards docility sounds like a pretty good trait to have, beyond that it implies a lifestyle to maintain it, with servants, maids, carriages, and not too many pregnancies.

The whole point is – to use very 20th century jargon – the quickest route to social power in the 19th century for a woman was to have only the few children that were required… and to avoid manual labor and exposure to demi monde. If the quickest route to both get and show this type of success was a tight-laced corset, then so be it.

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Polonaise of Marie Antoinette, with a back pulled up from the dirt

The Polonaise of Marie Anntoinette pulled up from the dirt

The Victorian world saw an explosion of advancement, growth, and manufacturing. Factories were raising from the gentile fields of Europe, and America was stalking and pouncing on the power of steam and mechanization with a covetous hunger. From all the clank and soot arose new millionaires, all eager to establish themselves in society and ensure themselves a place in social/congregational heaven. But how so? How can these nouveau riche of Western Society be squeezed into an inherited pattern whose foremost requirement is that entrants not be nouveau riche? How can society create order with such seeming economic chaos? Easy. Give those mass produced parlor sets crotch mahogany veneer. Make all the new stuff nobly pay tribute to the old. 

Victorian Revival of the Polonaise

Victorian Revival of the Polonaise with a Watteau back

My next project will be something of a revival of a revival  - a purple plaid polonaise c. 1874-1876. The Victorian Polonaise was meant to be a revival of a Roccoco style ‘gown’ for the aristocracy that was intended to copy the dress of rustic Polish peasants. Of course the Rococo Polonaise and the Victorian Polonaise little resemble that which the 18th century Polish peasant actually wore and were made of much more expensive materials, but that’s beside the point.

The Victorian Polonaise is something of an evolution of an evolution. In the age of Marie Anntoinette, when dressing like a simple, silk-clad, puffed, and embroidered peasant girl was a la mode, fashions were adopted by designers that wished to give elegance to the ‘simplicity’ of peasant life. In order for designers to credibly claim their designs were peasant-chic, they would slap names on their garments to evoke some foreign, and perceived simplistic culture.

Sleeveless Polonaise

Casual blue sleeveless Polonaise

La Polonaise was a safe bet for a name of such a garment, first because Poland was a long way away from France, and second, because the former queen, and grandmother of the current King Louis XVI, Queen Marie Leszczyńska, was Polish and reknowned for her piety, simplicity and charity. Unlike Marie-Anntoinette, she had a well-deserved reputation for charity, piety, thrift in a decadent court, and she was popular. Also, Poland was poorer than France, so there must be simple peasants there.

What was a Polonaise? Basically a bodice that is shorter in front and with a very long back. The original intention of the 1770s Polonaise was to bunch the back, so as to imitate peasants who pull their robes up out of the dirt. Aristocracy, you see, didn’t need to pull their robes up from the dirt because they had peasants to walk on when the ground was muddy. [It's a joke]

A Sporty Polonaise from 1883. The styling here was the most common.

A Sporty Polonaise from 1883. The styling here was the most common.

The Polonaise came into style just about the same time as the bustle. As the Victorian era grew older, it became sportier and sportier, loosing the old pick-up-from-the-dirt idea and turning instead into to simply  a long-backed bodice. Some of them were made with faked shorter bodices, with long attached ‘tail’ or skirts. Eventually, they just became something of a jacket, but retained the name.

The Polonaise has likely existed in some form or another for quite some time. I remember seeing images of Tudor women, working class women from the 17th century, and 17th century courtiers wearing gowns of a similar concept. An Elizabethan gown ‘In the Polish style’ meant simply that it was high-necked, without a train, front closing, and decorated with horizontal braid across the front opening. That which would be most similar to the Polonaise was called an “open gown” or “loose gown,” which isn’t nearly as catchy, chic, and French as Polonaise. So when the term was coined, it stuck for a little over a century.

The polonaise I intend to make will resemble it’s Rococo ancestors only minimally.

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Think Victorian women outspent Victorian men on personal consumables?  Think again.

It has been a common misconception that the Victorian American woman was a little more than fond of retail therapy and large scale personal consumption. Much of the basis for this misconception has been that the little data that has been analyzed has been approached from the standpoint that those buying the consumable goods are those consuming them. Add to that the contrasting images of males and females we have culturally assumed for the Victorian era (women in large poufy dresses and Parisian hats, compared with the austere, polished and serious patriarch from the male fashion plates) and we have a nice historical myth. But  just because Victorian women purchased more goods, does not mean they consumed them.

victorian_postcard_2

Big Spender

Consumer Society in America has an article that claims that according to the 1890 census, men consumed 2.5 times more on clothing than women. And that’s not all. Though men’s clothes were at the top of list ($446M), liquor and alcohol came second ($290M). Then footwear ($274M) and tobacco ($197M).  Compare the almost $200M spent on tobacco with the $183M American women in 1890 spent on women’s clothing. Further down the list are perfumes and cosmetics, sporting goods, billard table materials ($2.8M!), and some other androgenous cosumables such as pocketbooks and watches that were likely consumed more by men.

The article states that the numbers are accurate, since the census did purposefully divide men and women’s clothing into two separate categories. What this does not include are clothing items made at home, in which case women were producing what they consumed. Men would have been more likely to buy more of their clothes off the rack, rather than relying on a wife or female member of the family to produce them at home.

But, as the article continues, even if the clothing items are entirely removed from equation, the consumption of men and women becomes basically identical. If, for example, the census numbers missed a third of female consumption on clothing, that would still only put women at about 44%, claims the article. So the assumption that Victorian consumerism was highly skewed towards the feminine is entirely wrong.

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Appealing to Feminine Frugality

Though this is just a theoretical scenario, could it be possible that women were better at keeping their clothes in good shape? With all that liquor and tobacco being consumed, there were bound to be some casualties (think clothes with cigar holes, sloppy eating). Also, I believe that women’s clothing, particularly those in the middle class, was more designated into functional categories. She had house dresses, visiting dresses, walking dresses, perhaps a formal dress. Though this is just a theory, perhaps feminine ritual resulted in women dressing appropriately for the purpose. Other factors entering into the equation could be that women had more structure to their clothes – such as boning – that preserved their clothing from wear.

There is also the possibility of price discrimination across genders. Men were the income earners. Their image was important. Women, on the other hand, did not earn income, and were usually dependent on a male family member for spending money. Women in 2009 will spend more money than a man on their clothing and hair because they likely perceive a financial benefit resulting therefrom: better job, richer boyfriend. She may be on the dating or job market for years, whereas a Victorian women could be married before she was 20.

In any case and for whatever reason, unless there were a lot of women running around in men’s clothes, drinking copious amounts of  alcohol and smoking cigars (a la Lilian Russell), women were not the big consumers of the Victorian era.

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I decided to re-examine the back of the gown today. If there were a detachable train, I thought, there would need to be a method to attach it’s sides to the dress so the train didn’t fly up like a superman cape. Lo and behold, I found the method. There are a series of small thread loops going down the side directly below the last button.

It’s absolutely maddening to have in one’s mind how the train was constructed, but not have it exist anymore. I can make a pretty good guess as to what it looked like:

  • made of the olive silk and lined in the base fabric
  • trimmed at the hem with the three rows of pleating
  • attached to the dress at the top with rather large button holes. The holes would have been cut out of some rather stiff material, and it would have been buttoned onto the holes on the right side of the fabric
  • had a series of metal hooks down the sides that attached to our thread loops

The train option would have made this gown for a wealthy woman who received guests ceremoniously. When I get around to it, I will post a drawing of what the dress probably looked like avec train.

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The Skirt Exterior

 

Skirt Front

Skirt Front

This is the fun part… Since the skirt is asymmetrical with overlapping pieces and numerous interconnected layers, I will go clockwise around the skirt with the descriptions/explanations.

The base skirt is gold/tan cotton, the top of which can be seen at the waist. The base skirt is gathered into the waistband and sewn by hand.

The olive apron is sewed to the base skirt on a diagonal. At first I thought this may have been a repair for a ripping apron, but that is not the case as the top of the apron is the edge of the fabric and could not have continued.

The Silk Tassels, hem pleating, and verticle pleating

The Silk Tassels, hem pleating, and verticle pleating

The apron is pleated into the side, which I shall show later. I am shamefully responsible for the spot o the lower middle apron, when I dropped some food on it as a girl. I have made no attempt to clean it, but am looking into some methods.

The gold tassels are made of silk, and sew to the bottom of three gold silk strips. The strips are back with olive silk and hand basted to the skirt. The skirt has a series of verticle pleats between the gold strips.

The entire hem is covered in three rows of very tight pleating.

20081104_0007

Side of the skirt where the apron is gathered.

To the left is the apron draping I was talking about. The Apron is cut like a long scarf, where it’s sewn to the base skirt in the front on the diagonal. It is gathered on the side, and the gathers are covered in jet and glass bead work.

20081104_0026

Photo of the beading, showing the gathering of the apron.

The gathering is sewn to a side/back panel, which is edged in gold silk rope. So, the scarf-like apron holds it is place. More on this later.

20081104_00052To the left is a shot of the back of the skirt showing the beadwork. There is another panel, also edged in gold silk braid show here. It is basted down close to the beadwork. In the beadwork photo, you can see the gold braid in the upper left hand corner. You can also see how the apron-scarf overlaps the panel.

20081104_0006To the right is a shot of the bottom of the scarf-apron,  which overlaps the largest back panel, and is gathered and billowed near the hem. The bottom is edged in the gold silk. In the photo, you can see where the panel ends on the right hand side and gives way to the 2 rows of pleating. You can also see the gold braid along the bottom, and the gold silk that trims the end of the apron-scarf.

20081104_00011Confused? I made a drawing. If you look closely, you will see that the scarf-like apron, the right back panel (panel #1) and left back panel (panel #2) are all basted together under the beading, and at the bottom gathering of the scarf-like apron (lower right corner of the drawing). It was indeed meant to be worn with a bustle, because without a bustle, the basting locations don’t work. But it was not meant to be worn with a bustle the size of what I made.

Onto the left side…

20081104_0030
20081104_0025

The left side is much simpler than the right. The apron is gathered underneath the back left panel, which itself is gathered over the location. The back left panel then straightens out and is trimmed with gold braid.

As I mentioned before, the pleating at the hem goes all the way around the bottom, even when it is covered up by the two back panels.

The Underside & Lost Train

The olive silk never touches the waistband. All pieces are sewn onto the base fabric. Under the apron, panels of olive silk and the gold strips with the tassels are sewn to the base fabric about 8 inches below the waist. The distance between the olive front panels and where the apron is sewn varies because the apron is sewn on a diagonal.

20081104_0035The Bustle area has rigging: two strips of black cotton tape. Loose threads on the base fabric (the gold fabric in the pictures) suggest that the base fabric was once basted at points to the rigging. It was NOT basted to the olive silk panels, probably because the stitching would be visible since the panels are not lined and there would be nothing by visible fabric to grab on to.

Do you see the white porcelein buttons? There are five: three on the base fabric, and two on the olive silk. The fabric underneath them is gathered, probably to strengthen the fabric to hold the weight of whatever the buttons were buttoning. What do I think they were for? A detachable train. Where is it now? It very likely no longer exists.

20081104_0036

My guess is that the train would have had the 3 layers of pleats that we see on the bottom of the hem. The idea of it having a train makes the design make much more sense. The back panels are remarkably flimsy, being unlined, and merely interfaced with mitering. It seems remarkably insubstantial compared to the busy front, and this was a time period in which the fashion was to have your back be far more complex than your front. If the back panels and so forth were just the covering to hide the train attachment mechanism, then it makes sense. It explains why the back panels are only basted together and not basted towards the front of the skirt. If a train were to be attached, it would need the extra room to spread out. Another possibility is that the two side panels were basted together as they are later, perhaps after the train was ruined.

If I were to sew a train for this gown, I would interface the top with some stiff fabric, and then button the train right side of the fabric to right side of the other fabric, so the buttons would never be seen.

20081104_0037And the Hem…

Under the pleating, the hem is trimmed with a stiff fabric. I believe it is a heavy, dense wool. There is no lining to the dress, which is not surprising. The base fabric of the gown performs the same function.

Other Examples?

In all of my searching, so far, I have yet to find another skirt quite like this one, which is more than baffling. The front is typical, but the arrangements of the overlaying back panels, the sweeping scarf-like apron, and the possibility of a train are mysterious indeed.

If any of my readers have any more information on this dress, its function, or its construction, I would very, very much appreciate it if you could comment. Thank you!

To part, I will throw in a couple of photos of the bodice and skirt together:

20081104_004720081104_004620081104_00441


 

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“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.

Belles of the Hoop Period

Belles of the Hoop Period

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.

Empress Carlotta of Mexico, height of the hoop size

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.

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.

The skirts of the early 1870s had a hoop-like appearance with a higher waist

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.

1868 Fashion Plate. Transitional from Elliptical Hoop to Bustle

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.

Young Lady of Fashion vs. Working Class Older Woman – 1871. The Young Lady’s skirt and waist are exaggerated for effect.

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.

1873 Bustle

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.

First Bustle 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.

Perils of the Natural Form from Punch

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.

The “soft” bustle gives way to the “shelf” bustle of the Second Bustle Period, 1887

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.

1892 Ballgowns. The torso is long, the shoulders wide, and the waist tiny

Parody of Sleeve styles from Punch, 1890s

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.

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