The Hustle and Bustle of Victorian Life — A 5-Minute Guide to the Bustle Dress

Following on from our article on corsets, we turn our attention to the bustle.

We think the bustle epitomizes Victorian fashion during the last quarter of the 19th century. It’s particularly synonymous with the period of peace, prosperity, and progress known as the Belle Époque.

The bustle was celebrated in paintings by the Belle Époque artist Jean Béraud, by the fashion portraitist James Tissot, and by the pointillist artist Georges Seurat in his iconic work “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”.

La Patisserie Gloppe au Champs Elyssées by Jean-Georges Béraud - 1889
La Patisserie Gloppe au Champs Elyssées by Jean-Georges Béraud – 1889
The Ball on Shipboard by James Tissot, 1874
The Ball on Shipboard by James Tissot, 1874
A Sunday on La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat, 1884
A Sunday on La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat, 1884

Out went the huge crinolines of the 1860’s …

1860's fashion plate
1860’s fashion plate

… and in came a slimline version.

1887 Fashion Plate
1887 Fashion Plate

The bustle was far more convenient for day-to-day activities … although some compromises were still necessary as Jean Béraud illustrates so aptly in his painting “Woman in Prayer”.

Woman in Prayer by Jean-Georges Béraud, 1877
Woman in Prayer by Jean-Georges Béraud, 1877

And the effect it had on men ranged from admiring looks at the opera, to marriage proposals on bended knee.

Left: The Box by the Stalls by Jean-Georges Béraud - 1883. Right: An 1885 proposal caricature
Left: The Box by the Stalls by Jean-Georges Béraud – 1883. Right: An 1885 proposal caricature

Even today, the essence of the bustle has been used by top designers such as Vera Wang in her stunning wedding dresses.

When I design a wedding dress with a bustle, it has to be one the bride can dance in. I love the idea that something is practical and still looks great.Vera Wang


Crinolines and bustles  were types of framework to give fullness to dresses and keep them from dragging.

1884-86. American. Silk. metmuseum_closeup
Bustle shown overlaid for illustration purposes

Heavy fabric would weigh down the skirts of dresses and flatten them, causing a woman’s petticoated dress to lose its shape during everyday wear—merely from sitting down or moving about.

From around the 1870s to the late 1890s, the large bell-shaped crinolines were superseded by the bustle as the preferred way to create the desired fullness that was in vogue.

The overskirt of the late 1860s was now swept up toward the back with the bustle providing the needed support for the new draped shape.

This fullness was drawn up in ties for walking that created a fashionable “puff”.

In this painting from Belle Époque-era Paris, we see ladies crossing the street in rainy weather while holding their skirts up with one hand.

The bustle made it much easier to manage the fullness of skirts and keep them from dragging on muddy streets.

Boulevard Poissonniere in the Rain by Jean-Georges Béraud - 1885
Boulevard Poissonniere in the Rain by Jean-Georges Béraud – 1885

Supporting this trendsetting puff was a variety of things such as horsehair, metal hoops and down.

More sophisticated designs would allow bustles to reach their maximum potential—looking like a full shelf at the back. Some even joked that the bustles could support an entire tea service!

1884-86. American. Silk. metmuseum_closeup
1884-86. American. Silk. metmuseum_closeup

Some of the sculptural undergarments required to achieve the extreme bustle of the 1880s are shown here.

To support the heavier gowns, light and flexible frameworks were created using wire, cane, and whalebone, held together with canvas tapes or inserts inside of quilted channels.

Bustle from c. 1885, American, linen, metal
Bustle from c. 1885, American, linen, metal
Bustle from 1871, British, cotton, metal. metmuseum
Bustle from 1871, British, cotton, metal. metmuseum
Bustle from 1870s, American. memuseum
Bustle from 1870s, American. memuseum
Bustle from 1870s, American, metmuseum
Bustle from 1870s, American, metmuseum
Bustle from 1880s Europe. metmuseum
Bustle from 1880s Europe. metmuseum
1878. American. Linen, metal. metmuseum
1878. American. Linen, metal. metmuseum
1880s. American. metmuseum
1880s. American. metmuseum
1882 bustle. American. Steel, cotton. metmuseum
1882 bustle. American. Steel, cotton. metmuseum
1873 Bustle. Credit Wilhelm Storm, flickr
1873 Bustle. Credit Wilhelm Storm, flickr
c. 1865. American. silk. metmuseum
c. 1865. American. silk. metmuseum
c. 1865. American. silk. metmuseum_front
c. 1865. American. silk. metmuseum_front
c. 1880. American. Silk, cotton. metmuseum
c. 1880. American. Silk, cotton. metmuseum

c. 1880. American. Silk, cotton. metmuseum_front

1885. American. Silk, linen. metmuseum
1885. American. Silk, linen. metmuseum
1885. American. Silk, linen. metmuseum
1885. American. Silk, linen. metmuseum
c. 1885. American. Silk, cotton. metmuseum
c. 1885. American. Silk, cotton. metmuseum
c. 1885. American. Silk, cotton. metmuseum
c. 1885. American. Silk, cotton. metmuseum
1885. American. Silk, rhinestones, metal. metmuseum
1885. American. Silk, rhinestones, metal. metmuseum
1885. American. Silk, rhinestones, metal. metmuseum
1885. American. Silk, rhinestones, metal. metmuseum
1888. American. Silk, linen, cotton. metmuseum
1888. American. Silk, linen, cotton. metmuseum
1888. American. Silk, linen, cotton. metmuseum
1888. American. Silk, linen, cotton. metmuseum
1885. American. Silk. metmuseum
1885. American. Silk. metmuseum
1885. American. Silk. metmuseum
1885. American. Silk. metmuseum

The feminine bustle silhouette continued through the 1890’s before making way for the S-curve silhouette of the Edwardian era.

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Sources
Metropolitan Museum of Art
wisconsinhistory.org
Corsets and Crinolines by Norah Waugh

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