Costuming · Fashion History · Uncategorized · Victorian

A brief history of the bustle

Prior to 1870, various types of silhouette-altering garments were worn to change the natural shape of the female body into a fabricated, structural work of art. In addition to the corset, this included hip pads, bum rolls, farthingales, side hoops, panniers, stiffened petticoats, and crinolines.

It wasn’t until 1868 that the bustle, or tournure, first gained popularity. As an emphasis on silhouette shifted, the rounded or oval hoop skirt of the mid-nineteenth century lost popularity and a more conical shape with emphasis on the bottom and the back replaced it. The weight and volume of skirts moved toward the back of the form to be accompanied by an overskirt that, through variety of gathers and/or ties, structurally formed a pouf—all of which required a support structure to prevent a woman’s attire from losing its shape.

Bustles were in style during two distinct periods in the Victorian era; The early bustle period, from 1869 through 1876; and the later bustle period, from 1883 through 1889. During this time, three categories of bustle support were popular: the lobster-tail or crayfish; the small bustle; and the bustle pad or cushion. Many women owned at least one of each, and wealthy women would have owned many different styles, which could be worn separately or together to achieve their desired shape. These bustles were intended to not only support the overlaying garments but also to help create even more volume.

Introduced in 1868 to replace the cage crinoline, the largest of these three styles consisted of a narrow hoop skirt with a flattened front and concentric hoops in the back and, in most cases, a rigid arched bone or series of arched hoops to make the back extend outward from the wearer and provide the necessary structural support. It could be made either of cotton or linen with channels for the hoops. Ties or lacings would be available on the inside of the structure so that the roundness of the hoops could be adjusted around the form, creating an even more dramatic silhouette. Called the crayfish style due to its overall structure, visually reminiscent of the tail of a crayfish, this undergarment was sometimes also found in shades of red. In England, this bustle was referred to as a dress improver  and in France, a tournure. This support structure would have been topped by a ruffled and flounced petticoat (or two), an underskirt and an overskirt. The skirt and overskirt were typically covered in ruffles, pleats, puffs, rusches, lace, various types of trim, beading, flowers, and/or fringe, and the overskirt was gathered onto the back of the underskirt with a variety of ties or permanent gathers. 

In 1881, designer Charles Worth reintroduced the bustle into high fashion. Unlike the styles of its earlier counterparts, the bustle of the 1880s fit closer to the body, was smaller, lightweight, and sometimes collapsible for easy sitting. In France this was referred to as the crinolette. There were many variations of the small bustle in both structure and material, but they all accomplished the same objective: to concentrate volume at the curve of the back. These were often made of woven mesh or wicker, whalebone, coiled steel springs that rounded the body, or overlapping rows of stiff flounces made from layers of horsehair. The bustle cushion or bustle pad style was accessible to most women and would have been worn by all classes, simply because it was the easiest to manufacture. It consisted of a square, oval, or semi-circular shape filled with horsehair, cotton batting, or even feathers, firmly attached to a waistband. For extra volume, layers of cushions decreasing in size towards the top could be stacked and then sewn to a waistband. Ruffles, pleats, and lace trim were occasionally added, though for the most part these cushions remained simple garments.



Bruna, D. (2015). Fashioning the Body: an Intimate History of the Silhouette. Yale University Press

Jarrett, S. (2013). The Victorian Era – The First Bustle Period and Natural Form: 1870-1883. [Online]. Available:

Jarrett, S. (2013). The Victorian Era – The Second Bustle Period and Aesthetic Dress: 1883-1890. [Online]. Available:

Victoriana Magazine. Victorian Bustle: Hidden Secret Behind the 1880s Silhouette. [Online]. Available:

Waugh, N. (1954). Corsets & Crinolines. Routledge/Theatre Art Books.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s