By Lily Kaar
This week, HHS presents an outfit! This three-piece ensemble of skirt, blouse, and jacket is likely from the early 1880s, based on the “Natural Form” style of bustle on the skirt. Each piece is primarily made of geometrically striped grey cotton and trimmed with black velvet ribbon and beige fringe. The blouse and jacket have been left open on the mannequin as, due to the tailoring of the garments, they would not have successfully buttoned. Since our mannequin is about five feet tall with a 25 inch waist, it shows how much the ladies of the time were corseting themselves.
The bustle skirt became one of the most iconic styles of the late 19th century. Although it’s not terribly obvious, looking at some of the more extravagant styles of skirt—some of which required support structures of stiffened horsehair or steel hoops underneath—the bustle was an attempt to simplify the dress of the ladies. Up until the 1860s, women wore circular crinolines and hoopskirts under their dresses, which grew in size until they began to pose an obstacle to daily life. After that, women’s crinolines started becoming more oval, shifting the bulk of the fabric to the back, so they could maintain their fabulous skirts and still be able to reach doorknobs—or the gentleman they were dancing with. A few refinements and reductions of the fashionable silhouette later, and the bustle as we know it was born.
Once you enter the “Bustle Era” of the late 1860s to the late 1880s, you find that there are three very distinct types of bustle that come into and pass out of fashion within that time. The first bustle to grow out of the oval hoopskirts (called “First Bustle,” appropriately enough) kept much of the structure of those garments. Dresses were supported by a gently sloping rigid underskirt with metal hoops, including a hoop at the bottom to kick out the hem of the skirt. From there, the mid-1870s switched to the “Natural Form” bustle; they removed the extra undergarment and narrowed the skirts to let them lay closer to the figure, but played with adding trains and extra decoration. By the early 1880s, the last bustle style appeared which added the supportive undergarment back into the ensemble. “Second Bustle” relied on the shelf bustle, so called because it extended almost perpendicular from the back. Skirts lost their trains except for very formal affairs, and the emphasis lay on the piled poufs at the hip line and bum area of the skirts.
The Bustle Era owes many of its hallmarks to the Industrial Revolution that was thriving at the time. While machine-produced textiles and trims were already a major business, this was when sewing machines were first sold to the general public. Since the machines not only produced a fine, even stitch, but also drastically reduced the time needed to sew a garment, it became fashionable to add tons of decorations to one’s outfit. Many bustle skirts, such as this one, had layers of flounces, pleats, and ruffles, often further decorated with machine-made braid, ribbon, or fringe.
Of course, very few garments were finished exclusively by machine. Early sewing machines could only do very simple stitches, and so anything fancy had to be done by hand. It is not uncommon to see garments with both machine and hand stitching, like the interior of the jacket shows above. The seam on the left was sewn by hand, where the seam on the right was machine-sewn.