Bouffant backsides are not peculiar to our time. Kya delongchamp sexplores the rise and fall of the bustle in fashions of the 19th century
Big bottom/small waist, this is the not the first time the divine equation has been deployed. Kim Kardashian did not have layers of petticoats to hide he run-air brushed imperfection sin recent, candid beach shots.
We all know, from period films and TV dramas what a bustle was. However, the bustle was not only used to improve the perceived dimensions of a woman’s body. This was a luxuriant fabric galleon with the woman at the prow, lifting yards of expensive, hefty material (gauges we would put in curtains today), nicely into view but safely suspended out of the horse muck. Bustles were also an important, well upholstered step towards more liberated fashions. In 1869 the 30-year rule of the bustled backside began. By its end (oddly as today with buttock enhancement surgery on the rise), it soon inflated a women’s suggested assets to unlikely proportions in a ratio with the strangled waist.
The fashion for the smaller skirt and marked bustle, rescued society women in the 1860s from the centre of an isolating circular skirt, drowning in up to six yards of material. Introduced to England in the 1500s by Catherine of Aragon on her marriage to Henry VIII, this form included a layering of stuffing at the hips to set the skirts out like a fleshy shelf (it arrived at what was termed a farthingale). This daunting perimeter, by the early Victorian era, not only held men at arm’s length, but could easily be poked into the fireplace, sending the wear er up like a Roman candle. On June 2, 1864, this newspaper reported that Ann Rollinson died after sustaining injuries when her crinoline was caught by a revolving machinery shaft in a mangling room at Firwood bleach works near Bolton. She died a couple of revolutions before being freed by her co-workers. “A witness stated that her dress would not have been caught but for the crinoline pressing it out.” ( The Cork Examiner). More usual perils included visiting friends. Sitting demanded a particular design of backless chair to prevent the front of the flexible spring steel bell tilting forward to reveal an ankle — sexual dynamite. Still, the hooped skirt, now only enjoyed as kitsch loo roll covers, was seen as progress by women’s advocates of the day including (wait for it) a pioneer of the suffragette movement, American darling — Amelia Bloomer. If you watch Gone with the Wind (MGM 1939) notice that Mammy, played by Hattie Mcdaniel, has petticoats almost as voluminous as Scarlet O’hara herself, historically correct in a country where crinolines crossed the classes. Queen Victoria, surrounded by fashionably hobbled courtiers disappearing like diving gannets into their skirting at every curtsy, was not keen on the fashion. Where an event was short on space Her Majesty would request women not to bring their cages. In the late 1860s a new form of crinoline appeared, asymmetrical, with a flatter front and half hoops set to the back. The material in what was termed a ‘trained skirt’ could be beautifully folded and rippled in this way. The drapery gradually moved from the front of the body to the back, leaving a sleek abdomen.
This still burdensome fashion was fetching, graceful and more practical than a fuller skirts, allowing a longer front silhouette and a bird of paradise like sweep of skirts behind, fluffed with tassels and bows. Stiff cotton or horsehair under-skirts, and tortuous cages could be prettily concealed, the show-piece of the dress drifting in a wake behind the woman. It retained the tiny waist with excruciating corseting, but doing away with the embarrassing pitch of a circular device, a lady could move through a crowd with ease.
Starting with the demure and very pretty crinolette cloud on the backside, sweeping out and down to the train, the bustle, in typical High Victorian flavour soon bloomed up, out, and even over the height of the buttocks in a ‘bum-p ad’ of muslin, mohair and/or sprung wire. Various patents wrestled with the problem area in league with jupons and other archaic forgotten attire like side-gores, some built into a foundation skirt. Uptight, upright and respectable, together with the train, the bustle or tournure, provided alluring curves and an undulating movement as a woman crossed a ballroom floor. You could park a tray of champagne on it. Hoops gradually disappeared, and the train retracted to a fan, as the bustle suspended the fabric directly from the back, which must have been heavy in anything but cotton. With tighter material across the hips an hour-glass was now on show with an aerodynamic shorter fish-tail. A bigger bust was an asset to balance the ballast behind. Cartoonists and social commentators were quick to make fun of the bustle’s malformation of the natural shape of woman. One sketch in 1881, clamped the posterior of the Venus de Milo in a bustle cage. Fun magazine in 1872, showed evolutionist father Charles Darwin, as a monkey savouring the sight of a gigantic, shrub like bustle. Oscar Wilde showed a flair for dress design and for a time edited the magazine A Woman’s World. He wrote in 1888 — “it is from the shoulders, and from the shoulders only, that all garments should be hung”. (The Philosophy of Dress) — and that’s exactly what happened.
Fuller sleeves took over by the 1890s and the age of the bustle was behind us.
Bustles were an important, well upholstered step towards more liberated fashions.