Bustles were undergarments for dresses designed to swell out dramatically at the back of the skirt, in the fashion of the 1870s and 1880s. Dressmakers had various ways of providing hidden support for these curves.
Bustles generally depended on cushioning, or a frame, or some combination: padding held in shape with wires, or a frame softened with ruffles. Any firmly-woven cloth could hold the filling. Feather and down, or pure down, gave the nicest feel, but other stuffings were also used: horsehair, cloth scraps etc. The bustle could be one large cushion in a backwards-facing apron, or a set of smaller pads built into a particular shape. Layers of stiff woven horsehair or buckram might also help with shaping.
Corset-makers used their expertise with steel and bone to make elaborate lingerie that suited the desired line of the dress, which varied through the years when bustles were in fashion. Skilled professionals hid the underlying structure inside elegant undergarments with stylish trimmings. Commercial “patent bustles” appeared, while simpler contraptions remained popular too.
Anyone trying to recreate an authentic bustle has plenty of choice as to materials and style. Victorian bustle fabrics were often plain, serviceable cottons but some were silk; bent willow was not unheard of for structure. Different dressmakers had different solutions. After considering shape, and tolerable levels of comfort, homemade bustle design benefited from pillow- or mattress-making knowledge. Feather padding needed to be covered in closely-woven linen or cotton with very tightly-stitched seams.
All bustles had tapes to tie them on round the waist, and sometimes over the hips too. Some even tied under the buttocks. The bustle usually went over the petticoat/underskirt and corset, tightly-laced for the small waist considered desirable above generous bustle-created curves. Next to the skin were a chemise and drawers.
The name bustle was widespread, but more genteel ladies preferred to say dress-improver, or use the French word tournure. Padding under some earlier 19th century dress shapes was called a bustle at the time, but now the word is mainly used for 1870s/1880s fashion.
The bustle was…at first a species of pillow-roll, or pudding, stuffed and covered, and secured round the waist with strings.
George Augustus Sala, 1860, in the fictional letters of “Lady Chesterfield” to her daughter
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