All of the below stories come from Karen Bowman’s Corset and Codpieces: A Social History of Outrageous Fashion (2015) from Pen and Sword Books.
In continuing my recent trend of blogging about the hazards of giant skirts, today I’m going to talk about bustles. We’ve discussed “cork rumps“, an early version of the bustle. This second incarnation came in the 1870s, as a reactionary style to the previous decade’s obsession with crinolines and hoop skirts.
It went from: “WHO’S A PRETTY PRINCESS? GIVE ME ATTENTION PLS”
to “Honey, you won’t even see this svelte fox comin’ atcha until it’s too late.”
Bustles lasted all the way through the 1880s and provided, to some extent, greater freedom and safety for women than the hoop formerly provided. Of course, this was not without its drawbacks. The flatness of the front of the skirt revealed the shape of the abdomen, thought to be scandalous by some. The narrowness of the skirt also impeded walking. And the bustles themselves, as they grew bulkier and more ridiculous, made sitting something of a difficulty.
The shapes and elaborateness of bustles grew as the century wore on. At first, women just got rid of their hoops, took their old skirts, and gathered the excess material up behind them. Then they started adding small cushions or cages under their clothing to accentuate the shape. In the early 1870s, bustles decreased, but came back soon after with a vengeance “perhaps becoause some ladies thought ‘women were disgusting creatures without one’“. However it was more likely to have been because Charles Frederick Worth, the designer who dominated Parisian fashion in the latter half of the nineteenth century, re-introduced the phenomena, and though skirts remained slim in the front and at the sides, the back ballooned out like never before. Suddenly women were jutting out behind larger than ever and “with a silhouette that made them look like they had inherited the hind legs of a horse” (106).
Of course, this provided loads of opportunity for novelty.
Unnecessary, inappropriate novelty.
There was a spring-loaded bustle called the “phantom”, which came out in 1884. The springs collapsed when the wearer sat down and popped back up when the wearer rose. Nothing dangerous at all about a spring-loaded posterior.
More insanely, there was a bustle made “to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee celebrations, which was fitted with a musical box that played ‘God Save the Queen’ each time the wearer sat down” (106). I don’t even have anything to add to this. There is no joke I can make that is more hilarious than that sentence.
“Not about to let an opportunity pass, by 1886 companies were adding to these phenomena with the concept of a ‘handbag bustle’, first advertised in the Manchester Evening News. To all intents and purposes, said the manufacturers, its outward appearance was one of an ordinary bustle but inside there was ‘a large compartment in which a lady can carry articles such as brushes, cosmetics, tooth preparations and night raiments she may require when on a short visit, or temporary absence from home‘. The idea of a lady going about with her luggage in her bustle was possibly as startling to her as it is to us, but it was a great selling point and would save a woman from the problem of a lack of pockets which men did not suffer from” (106).
Punch was quick to pick up on a natural parallel:
Since bustles clearly contained sufficient storage space, they provided the same opportunities for women thieves and smugglers that hoops did. According to the Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette from 1888, “The customs officers at Queenstown on Monday arrested a passenger from New York because she had a revolver and 20 ball cartridges concealed in her bustle” (102). In another case, the police went after a gang of notorious poachers, who were found empty-handed. Three women associated with the gang were soon after discovered with “twenty-seven rabbits and two long lengths or [sic] rabbit netting” in their bustles (107).
In one absolutely disgusting story, a woman bought a bustle in the early 1870s, but discovered upon trying it on that it was a bit bigger than was fashionable at the time. She tucked it away in her attic, hoping that bustles would grow bigger in subsequent years. Luckily for her, that’s exactly what happened. So upon going back up into her attic to retreive her now very stylish garment, she disocvered that mice had nested in her bustle. “[S]he did not have the heart to evict [them]. Subsequently, she wore it, mice and all, the only alteration she made being a hole in the side of her bustle and her skirts so she could feed the small creatures at her dinner table which equally amused and terrified her guests” (107).
Girl, that is ass-nasty. Literally. That ass is nasty.
There were also rubber bustles which, if sat on too hard or by someone of the wrong weight, could explode. This happened once to a lady who had gone to see Charles Dickens give a reading. She was understandably mortified when, upon taking her seat, there was a loud clammor coming from her backside, the force of which caused her to collapse on the floor in front of the illustrious author. She was so embarrassed that she eventually took her dressmaker to court, accusing her of negligence. Although the dressmaker claimed she had told the woman to take extreme care when sitting on her bustle, the judge found in favor of the woman and took a small amount of money off the dressmaker’s bill (107-08).