How do you sit in a bustle dress?

In my other life (the one outside the photo/cooking/mother realm), I love to play dress up, and in particular I love the Victorian era. I have numerous 1860s dresses, Frontier outfits and 1890s dresses, but the one garment I have not tackled yet is the bustle dress. Partly because none of my friends have done it yet, but also partly because the bustle itself is rather daunting. Being as I like to make my own clothing, I would have to make a bustle, and even though I have made my own corset (experienced sewists only please!) I am intimidated by the wire frames and ties that make up this undergarment that was worn by millions of Western women at the height of the fashion in the 1880s.

A bustle is made of white cotton and can be a padded pillow-like item, or a wire framed petticoat that sticks out from the posterior. I read a little note that my grandmother jotted down at some point, allegedly from a conversation between her brother and sister. Her brother said “why would anyone want to pay twenty-five cents for a hump on her backside?” Regardless of the fact that my distant relative did not understand it, women did wear these fashions. They were considered extremely provocative as they created a little sway in the hips when viewed from behind. This coming from the prim Victorians is akin to sexting!

The question always comes to mind “how do you sit in a bustle dress?” Well, whether it was a padded pillow bustle or a wire frame bustle, there wasn’t a solid object behind the woman, and so she was able to plant her bottom on a chair or settee. However, also because there was a pillow or wire frame behind her, women tended to perch on the edges of their chairs rather than sink back into them. Our subject shown above appears to be leaning to one side of her body, transferring her weight over to her right leg. Perhaps it was a device of the photographer to make her look more natural, but having worn some of these voluminous Victorian style garments, I would say she is just trying to be comfortable.

I welcome comments from my historical clothing enthusiast friends…please tell us, how do you sit in a bustle dress?

Today’s photo is courtesy of Ray Jackson and was photographed by William Wollensak at 450 National Ave., Milwaukee. We know by the clothing that this photo was made in the 1880s. Mr. W. Wollensak was nominated for President of the Photographers Association of Wisconsin in 1898, having previously served on the Press Committee. Interestingly, there was a company that made photographic lenses named Wollensak Optical Company which sponsored the Wollensak Cup – a photographic trophy – in at least the 1910s, and the Photographers Association of Wisconsin was recorded as one of the conventions participating in the competition. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?


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