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Fashion History

By Pauline Weston Thomas for

Bustles Fashion History



The Victorian bustle, sometimes known as the Grecian bend was first in fashion between 1870 and 1875

It was next in fashion between 1883 to I891-2.

How to Differentiate Between Bustles of 1870 and 1883

People often find it difficult to distinguish between the two quite different effects the Victorian bustles produced. If you look carefully you can see quite clear differences of style in the dress silhouettes.  This is almost always verified by checking the hairstyle which also shows specific differences between the eras.  The first bustle silhouette existed between 1870 and 1875 and the second bustle silhouette was worn between 1883 and 1890, but had been introduced in Paris in 1880, so appeared in French fashion plates a little earlier than actually worn.  

Bustle Styles

Picture of a bustle dress with frills 1872.Picture of two bustle dresses 1875.Picture of a cuirasse dress with train.

1872, 1875 and 1876

Picture of a later bustle dress creating hind leg effect - 1884.Picture of a bustle dress -1886.Picture of a bustle dress declining into a train.

1884, 1886 and 1889.


Bustle Support 1870s

When the crinoline of the late 1860s had reached its maximum extreme width it began to subside. As had happened 100 year earlier, the surplus fabric was draped and the dress was pulled into shape by tapes and buttons sewn to the skirt.  The tapes were tied or buttoned up underneath to foreshorten and bunch up the fabric drawing it to the garment back.

To support the drapery a small crinoline was provided with an additional steel frame which was attached to the back at the waist.  Otherwise a separate bustle or tournure made from several layers of flounced horsehair was worn over the crinoline. By the 1870s the crinoline was discarded in favour of the bustle.

Now look carefully at the 1870s picture again and notice that there is fullness at the front of the dress with this style of bustle.  So around 1870 the bustle shows festooning drapery almost completely down the front or with an apron effect as shown in the 1870 header illustration.

Also the hairstyle is very important. Note the fullness of ringlets and plaits. 

Then compare this to hairstyles of 1885 which are very neatly styled, packed more tightly curled, frizzy fringed and closer to the head. In the earlier Victorian period of around 1870 there is lots of fallen, almost glamorous draped hair which would not look amiss with an 1860's crinoline. 

À. Challamel wrote in 1871 'False hair was worn more generally than ever'. Interesting statistics of the era show that 51,816kgs of false hair were sold in France in 1871 and 102,900kgs in 1873.  Yet by 1876 false hair was denounced as passé by The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine.

Slender Fashions of 1875 -1883

By 1874 the fullness was waning and complex tape arrangements were being used inside the dress back to draw in the silhouette shape and produce a more slender silhouette.

The fashion line became slender round the hips and the drapery became important.  There was no bustle worn, but a trained petticoat as shown in crinolines was used to support the narrow fanned train.  Because the dress was so narrow foot movement was limited to 6 inches. The fullness of the draped fan train was emphasized by deeply trimmed pleated frills of box or knife pleat ruching. 


The bodice fitted closely and there were two main fashion cuts.  One was called a cuirasse and the other a princess body which is often used today.  The slim style emphasized by lots of tiny buttons at the centre front needed skilful cutting and making up.  Poor workmanship was often camouflaged by swathed fabric.  But nothing could disguise the fact that the style needed a proportionate slender body to be shown at its best and so the fashion was quite short lived.  It was at this time that the Tea Gown, a loose and flowing robe became popular and was probably sweet relief from the restrictions of the slim silhouette. 

The Revived Bustle of 1883

The slim dresses that lasted until 1883 were swiftly replaced with a totally new style in 1883 when in the UK the bustle reappeared.  It had been introduced in Paris 3 years earlier, but had failed to take off. This was a new bustle in a much more exaggerated shape.  The bustle consisted of a straw filled cushion sewn into the skirt with a series of steel half hoops inserted in the skirt lining down to the ground.  This had the effect of throwing the skirt out almost horizontally from waist level behind. Women appeared to have the hind legs of a horse.

Mesh Bustles Circa 1883

Other Victorian bustles included the Langtry bustle and the braided wire health bustles shown right.

There was much less drapery with this second form of late Victorian bustle silhouette.  What there was, soon disappeared from the skirt.  Picture of a bustle dress typically worn over such mesh frames.

Drapery moved to the sides or to the front panel of the skirt, but ball dresses remained more draped. 

To recognise this later bustle silhouette look for a smoother more shelf like outline worn with a very tailored or quite structured square shouldered bodice.  Do remember to check the hair for that tighter less free frizzed look shown above.  It appears more to belong to the 1890s than the mid Victorian eras.  Despite the gown drapery, the lady in pink is post 1880 as the tighter neater hairstyle owes nothing to Victorian ringlet styles.

One other factor that emphasises the second bustle is the use of fabrics such as velveteen, plushette, and sateen.  Because of the economic depression between 1880-1890 cheaper materials were frequently used.  The wealthy still dressed well, but using a different, wider range of materials often gave an effect like steel armour.


The bustle simply diminished in size and by 1893 was just a pad.  But the silhouette had taken on an hour glass form that developed into the S-Bend shape corset, the hallmark of early Edwardian fashions and discussed fully on that page.


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My How to Recognise Undergarments in Fashion History e-book has 12 chapters about the changes in under foundations in costume history found in various articles on this website.  It also has a new chapter on the history of  drawers and knickers and one covering the chemise and petticoats.  This ebook enables you to read, print and copy from various web pages of all in one go.   

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The Undergarments ebook includes information from my articles on early corsetry, C18th Paniers and the sack dress, stays to corsets, crinoline styles from 1830s to 1860s, bustle styles of 1870s & 1883/5, Edwardian corsetry, bras and girdles before and after 1950, and a new chapter on drawers, pantaloons, knickers to panties.  A look at Rational Dress Reform, the contribution of Mrs. Bloomer and Dr. Jaeger to the resultant cycling and swimming dress.   For more information on the contents of Undergarments click here.

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