You see before you (right) a picture of me proudly modelling a bustle gown I made last year. Mr. Soup (known to me from our days working together in York) was fascinated by its construction and asked me to share with you a bit about how women of the period would make shapes like this with their clothes. So, here we go…
Among my projects, it’s a little unusual in that I didn’t make it for a show or a client- it was simply a test of my historical sewing skills, and a good challenge. A bustle gown is considered one of the most complex historical garments to make because of the strict fit and drapery. Here I’m going to answer a few frequently asked questions about wearing the outfit and the construction of its distinctive silhouette.
How did you get such a massive bum?
Here’s a picture of me in my Victorian underwear (picture.1)- how shocking! As you can see, I’m wearing a corset over a chemise, and a bustle.
This is essentially a petticoat with wire or “bones” in it to make it stand out from my back. In the 19th century, whalebone as well as cane and steel were used in corsets and bustles alike, but these days steel is used almost exclusively. Bustles reached their peak of popularity in the 1870s and 1880s, and the one I’m wearing here aims for a date of around 1883. Making your bum seem bigger seems like a very strange thing to do these days, but throughout history women have wanted to make their hips seem wider, often to make the waist look smaller in comparison. Bustles can be made in different ways, but luckily mine has a panel you can lift up, so I can show you where the bones go. Inside the bustle, a ribbon is sewn to each point where a bone ends, and they are tied together to make the bone bend as you see in picture. 1a.
Isn’t it heavy and uncomfortable? don’t you get too hot?
The large amount of air trapped between the skirts and in the folds of the petticoats is a great insulator, keeping me warm in the winter and cool in summer. Today most of the clothes we wear fit very close to our skin, which means there is less air trapped between us and the clothes. This means we have to wear lots of layers in winter and strip right down in summer, but until recently most people didn’t have this luxury. Not only were skimpier styles seen as inappropriate, most people would only own one or two outfits that had to be wearable all year round, so having an outfit that only worked in one season of the year would have been no good. As for the weight, it is a lot of fabric. Technological advances in the Industrial Revolution made fabric easier to purchase, and the Victorians responded to this by making gowns with as much fabric as they could possibly squeeze in. My outfit altogether weighs much more than almost any modern outfit would. All that weight, though, is pretty evenly spread out by my corset, making it much easier to deal with.
Whoa, isn’t it hard to breathe in those things? I heard they squash your organs up into you ribcage.
There are a lot of misconceptions about corsets, because unless you’re a burlesque dancer or a historical re-enactor, you’re unlikely to ever wear a real one yourself. Corsets can make it very difficult to breathe, but only if they’re done wrong. Remember when I said that the bustle is meant to make the waist look small in comparison to the hips? Well, the same is true for the bust. Victorian women don’t want to make their busts look small, because this would ruin the illusion. So corsets aren’t meant to constrain you around the chest, where your lungs are. In fact, they’re meant to support and push up the bust, much like a modern bra. They’re not even necessarily meant to actually make your waist smaller- taking into account how thick the corset is, my waist measurement is exactly the same when I’m wearing a corset and when I’m not wearing one. They also not only bear the weight of the large skirts, but also smooth out any rolls or lumpy bits in your abdomen. When I’m wearing it, I don’t feel uncomfortable at all- many corset wearers describe the sensation as a “tight hug”. However, I do lose some flexibility, because it’s very difficult not to have a straight back in a corset. Slobbing out on the sofa is difficult. Here’s a photo from Robert Wilson Shufeldt’s book Studies of the human form for artists, sculptors, and scientists (picture.3, below) showing the effect achieved by corsetry. You can see that although the waist is nipped in a bit, the bust and hips aren’t constrained at all.
But didn’t Victorian women have tiny waists? That must have been because of their corsets!
It’s true that you sometimes see black and white pictures of women (Edwardian usually, rather than Victorian) with really tiny waists, (picture.4).
These tend to be actresses, the Megan Foxes and Victoria Beckhams of their day. And just like our celebrities, Victorian celebrities have smaller waists than the average woman. Sometimes, that’s literally all they’re famous for. In studies of historical garments, the typical waist rarely falls below 20 inches, which is not an unreasonable size on a young woman today. Victorian women were on average about four inches shorter than women today, too, which makes smaller waist sizes more feasible. Just to balance things out, here are some pictures of ordinary Victorian women wearing their Sunday best:
How do you sit down in a bustle?
Now this is a tricky endeavour. Luckily the bones in bustles are made of a kind of steel which, if compressed, springs back into shape, so you don’t need to worry about getting up with a crumpled bustle. Sitting in a bustle, therefore, just involves making sure the bones are arranged properly around you. When I want to sit down, I back up to the chair until I can feel it hit the back of my skirt. Bearing in mind that the back of the skirt is actually quite far away from my legs, I can then judge how far back I need to sit. The bones of the bustle fold up behind me in the chair, and I cross my legs at the ankles.
Not so difficult after all! One problem that often crops up is the bustle pushing the chair backwards as you sit. This happens particularly on polished floors, and is why in period films, you’ll often see the gentlemen pulling out chairs for the ladies as they sit down to dinner- they’re making sure the chair doesn’t edge backwards. If you are trying to sit in a bustle or a crinoline, it’s useful to have friend on hand to help with this.
Having mastered sitting, the bustle wearer must then face the inevitable question of how to get in and out of a car, and how to use the toilet. Unfortunately there is no period answer to the car question- bustles having fallen out of favour a good while before cars became mainstream- but the toilet is an obstacle that Victorian women did face. Public toilets, with their narrow stalls, can be especially tricky to navigate, as the lack of space limits one’s ability to turn around. The first public stalls were opened in the Great Exhibition of 1851, and 827,280 visitors- including a good many ladies wearing crinolines- paid to use them. The method that I find works best (after much experimentation!) is to sit on the toilet backwards, i.e. facing the wall. That way, you don’t need to turn around twice in the skirt.
I hope I’ve give you a good primer into women’s underwear from the Bustle Era. These things often look very difficult to manage, but remember that Victorian women liked to be comfy just like we do, and it’s not possible to have an item of clothing in fashion for over twenty years if it’s completely impossible to live in!
Jenny Draper is a theatrical and historical costumier based in York. She is currently creating the costumes for “Faustus: A Steampunk Musical” with Six Lips Theatre. "Faustus: A Steampunk Musical" will be playing at the Edinburgh Fringe this year.