When I visited the Impressionism, Fashion, & Modernity exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of the definite highlights for me were the dresses with bustles. Objectively I knew what bustles were: an exuberant silhouette in women's fashion that began in the late 1860s and continued for roughly twenty years, a style of skirt that offered an exaggerated backside in varying sizes, shapes, and amount of drapery. I'd seen examples before, too. But I was unprepared for the sheer size and magnificence of the exhibition's gowns with bustles from the early 1880s, when the style reached its most extreme.
For once the fashion plates and caricatures didn't really have to exaggerate. The drawing from a French fashion magazine, upperleft, shows how stylized the fashion had become, with the bustle jutting out to hold the skirts a good 12-18" behind the lady's waist. To modern eyes, the bustle appears like an extension for carrying small children, or perhaps one of those old vaudeville-style horse acts with a second person hiding beneath the skirts.
But the longer I looked at the bustles on the actual gowns like the one, right, the more I could see the appeal. (Here are two more examples from our Pinterest boards, here and here, and the rear view here of Mme. Bartholome's dress.) A woman in a dress like this would have definite presence. She would occupy so much space that she could not be overlooked or ignored. Her already-corseted waist would look tiny by comparison.
I would love to have seen the dresses on a 19th c. woman who was skilled at managing both the bustle and the train. My guess is that with practice that over-sized rump must have had definite come-hither qualities, twitching and swaying seductively with the owner's walk - and yes, this gown was considered a walking dress, meant for outdoor strolls.
Seeing the suport necessary for a bustle, lower left, is also an eye-opener. There were many variations of bustles – here's one, another, and three more – and I imagine every woman had her favorite style, or perhaps several variations to suit different dresses. The point was to offer volume and support to the skirts without excessive weight, and in the advertisements of the day they're often touted as being "hygienic" as well.
Of course, like any high-fashion style, this walking dress is an extreme example, worn by a wealthy woman who patronized the House of Worth and Parisian couture. Women who were working on farms or in factories, or as servants or nurses wouldn't have been dragging yards of costly fabric after them. But bustles were embraced as a stylish status-symbol by the middle classes, and there are many paintings and photographs of women in dresses with bustles riding streetcars, attending church, teaching school, collecting shells at the beach, playing tennis, dancing, and generally living their lives without any real hindrance from their bustle-bumps.
More thoughts on bustles coming later this week, plus a Friday Video that will feature a lesson in sitting in a bustle. Upper left: Illustration from La Mode Illustrée, May 24, 1885. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Right: Walking dress, House of Worth, c. 1885, French. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Lower left: Bustle, c. 1885, American. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.