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Victorian Buns: The Obsession with Enormous Bustles

1800s | July 4, 2019

Late Victorian flower show and garden party dresses with high bustles and fitted corset lines. Source: (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Long before the Kardashian girls started posting social media pics of their derrieres and before Sir Mix A Lot gave us the classic “Baby Got Back,” folks were still fascinated with women with predominant backsides. In the 1870s and 1880s, women’s fashion moved away from huge, bell shirts to dresses with a more streamlined, flat front and a party in the back. The bustle gave the appearance that the woman had enough badonkadonk for everyone. Let’s look at the Victorian bustle fad that made every woman look like she had augmentation.

Before the bustle put the emphasis on the backside, hoop shirts were all the rage. Source: (en.wikipedia.org)

Pre-Bustle Days

Before the bustle was all the rage, it was full, round skirts that all fashionable ladies desired. The silhouette created by these skirts was feminine and flattering, but the look was hard to come by. At first, women wore layer upon layer of petticoats to get their dresses to flair out. As you can imagine, this was costly, heavy, cumbersome, and hot. Women were literally carrying around yards and yards of fabric everywhere they went. With the invention of the hoop skirt, ladies could still get the enormous bell shape to their skirts without all that extra fabric. Because they were so lightweight, hoop skirts got bigger and bigger. This presented a whole new set of challenges. It was hard to sit down, get close to your dance partner, and even maneuver past other hoop skirt wearers.

The bustle made the backside look oversized. Source: (smithsonianmag.com)

The Hustle to the Bustle

Around the 1870s, the cumbersome hoop skirt gave way to the bustle. Victorian dress designers created a look that was smooth and flat in the front, narrow on the sides, and poufy in the back. The fabric was gathered into pleats and folds at the rear that gave the wearer a disproportional sideways silhouette. 

Wire and metal was used to form the bustle. Source: (victoriana.com)

A Peek Under the Skirt

To get the bubble butt appearance, flat-bottomed girls needed a little help. During the time when bustles were fashionable, there was no shortage of contraptions that ladies could wear beneath their skirts to change the shape of their posteriors. Most bustles took the form of a belt worn around the waist. In the rear, the bustle had a cage or framework made of metal, fabric stays, wire, animal hair, wicker, or other malleable materials. The fabric of the dress would lay over the framework to give the illusion that the lady was more endowed in the nether region than she truly was. 

The bustle was not a very natural-looking. Source: (fiveminutehistory.com)

Was the Bustle an Example of Patriarchy?

The argument has long been made that the corset—another shape-changing fashion accessory of the 1800s—was akin to a torture device that the male patriarchy thrust upon submissive women because it appealed to their desire for women with ample bosoms and tiny waists. The same argument has been applied to the bustle. The silhouette that the bustle created a slim figure with a protruding patootie, opponents of the bustle argued, was gratifying to men at the expense of the comfort of women. 

Source: (collectorsweekly.com)

Over The Top Bustles

As with any fashion accessory, women tried to outdo each other with the size of their bustles. At balls, galas, and other formal parties, it was not uncommon to see bustles taken to the extreme. The oversized rumps were the envy of other women and certainly caught the attention of the Victorian gentlemen. Although they seem ridiculous today, ginormous bustles were an haute couture fashion item. 

A shelf bustle. Source: (bellejar.ca)

The Shelf Bustle

When the bustle fad first started, most bustles were made of soft material and at least attempted to look natural, but as the trend continued, all illusion of reality went by the wayside in favor of the shelf bustle. As the name implies, the shelf bustle had an angular, unnatural look. Made of metal and wires, you could probably place a tray of drinks on the woman’s backside. 

Source: (victoriana.com)

The End of the Bustle

By the 1890s and the turn of the century, the bustle trend was dying. Although corsets hung on a few more decades, women’s fashion evolved so that a more natural look was favorable. The bustle went out the backdoor and only appears today in theatrical or Halloween costumes from the Victorian era. 

Tags: bustles | victorian buns

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.