Bustle Era Changes – The Highs & Lows in the 1870s & 1880s

1885 Silk Taffeta Dress from LACMA

1885 Silk Taffeta Dress from LACMA

Ahh.. the Victorian Bustle Era. It’s so pretty! And aside from the huge poufy sleeves of the 1890s, it’s what most people think of when they hear “Victorian.” It’s the trimming. The opulence. The expensive laces. The multitude of fabrics – all on the same gown.

But did you know there are three distinct varieties that reside within these two decades?

Yep. 1871 looks like a distant relative to 1880 fashion. And by 1888 –that child resembles the grandmother, but not quite.

Let’s explore why these cousins kiss – and don’t.


From about 1868-ish to 1876 is known as the First Bustle Era, or Early Bustle, or simply 1870s Bustle. This is all about the poufs, the ruffles, the girly-ness.

Years from 1877 to 1882 fall into the Natural Form Era – “natural” as in the wired bustle contraption was left hanging in the closet and was replaced with a small pad resembling a woman’s “natural” curves.

Late Bustle, 1880s Bustle or Second Bustle Era came back strong in 1883 and lasted until 1889 when women had had enough of making their back side look disproportionally huge with the rest of body. The bustle was thrown out nearly overnight.


Early Bustle Era – 1868-1876

1870 June Godey's Lady's Book

1870 June Godey’s Lady’s Book

To study a fashion era, you must always start from where the styles are coming from. Fashion doesn’t change overnight. It’s a progression of change, pushed by influencing tides from celebrities and fashion designers.

Charles Worth, that celebrated King of Couture, felt the bustle coming long before anyone else. You can witness that by his addition of overskirts in the mid-1860s.

1867-71 Depret (French) Gown from the Met Museum

1867-71 Depret (French) Gown from the Met Museum


So starting with the elliptical hoop in the mid-to-late 1860s, we see the hoop start to collapse, or rather get smaller. (Guess they were done with squeezing through doorways!) Knee length overskirts were already popular so they stayed on top of the long skirt.

Now the skirt was already angling to the back with the elliptical shape. As the hoop width was reduced, they kept the angle towards the back. Well, what happens when you squeeze the sides of a hoop skirt but still want that back part? You pouf it up of course!

The elliptical shape went down to a full A-line shape with the overskirts, and eventually the foundation skirt, being puffed up at the bum area.

Great. Now we need a new wired contraption to hold all that fabric up back there! So rises the Great Bustle! (See! It all comes back to the silhouette foundation.)

1862-70 Cage Crinoline from LACMA

1862-70 Cage Crinoline at Los Angeles County Museum of Art


By now, thousands of households had sewing machines. So what would a woman at home with a new device capable of finishing a dress in only a day or two do with it? TRIM! Trim the H-E-Double Hockey Sticks-LL out of the dress!! That’s what.

So if anything to remember about the 1870s Bustle is that there is tons of trim. Ruffles, puffs, ruffles with puffs, puffs with ruches on top, on bottom. Ruffles on the sleeve cuffs, on the skirt, under the skirt, on the petticoats to hold out the skirt. And don’t forget the fabric bows.

The designs, although now covered with self or coordinating fabrics and laces, stayed as they had in the 1860s – symmetrical. Both sides of the dress looked the same. Until, of course, they got bored of that and decided to play with lines of design. But that’ll come later….

1877 August Godey's Lady's Book

1877 August Godey’s Lady’s Book

By the mid-70s you can see the width of the skirt has narrowed some. (They simply took the hoop wires out of the bustle hem.) They also put on more trim. They are trimming the trims now! They also got crazy with trains.

But you can see from this 1877 plate that the trims are still placed symmetrically. Yep. That’s important when looking at the differences between the bustle eras.

Well, at some point they got tired of all that skirt weight (but apparently not the trims), so they started leaving the bustle at home. Oh, it feels so good to sit back against the chair again! And this is the transition to the next fashion….



Natural Form Bustle Era – 1877-1882

1880 August Walking Dresses, Journal des Demoiselles

1880 August Walking Dresses, Journal des Demoiselles

By the late 1870s the skirts were slimmer and only to get even tighter around the legs in a few years. The main skirt support was a small pad at the back and a petticoat or two. I suppose if you have enough “natural padding” the pad can be left off altogether.

Overskirts were tighter around the foundation skirt and fancy drapes in the back were appearing in all sorts of complicated shapes. Bodices were tightened and lengthened around the non-bustle skirts into a cuirass bodice – a shape that mimics the long corset shape.

Styling was very much coming from the earlier puffy shapes but was now looking better shaped to the figure. Slim was in!


This era also created what we know as the Princess Dress. Or rather, it was a full-length dress with princess seams to fit the figure and no waistline seam. The long lines emphasized height and skinniness (if you can imagine that in the Victorian years!).

Vertical lines down the whole body gave the awesome idea to start trimming even more on the various angles created in the skirts. Many, many gowns of this time were loaded with gathered up fabric. Self-fabric strips (more trim!) were gathered up and sewn on vertically to emphasize that long look.

1880 May Godey's Lady's Book

1880 May Godey’s Lady’s Book

Now, this period was still focused on skirts. And hips – the Victorian hourglass shape.  So in the early 1880s while still only wearing the bum pad, they decided wide hips ruled. (Oh, how I love thee!)

The overskirt draperies were split down the center front and pulled up over the hips. Front aprons were pulled back to widen that hip area. Add fringe and flowers to top it off.

Apparently you can only increase the hip width so far without looking like Marie Antoinette – no wonder we call 18th C. side hoops “panniers”! – It was a term created by the Victorians circa 1880. So here comes the next change…


1883 La Mode Illustree

1883 La Mode Illustree

They pulled up those front aprons so much that all that fabric ended up piled on the back side again. “Hey! We need to support all this. What about those old wire contraptions at the back of the closet?” Which leads us to the Second Bustle Era.


Late Bustle Era – 1883-1889

1886 La Mode Illustree

1886 La Mode Illustree


By this time, the bustle became the affectionate “lobster tail” as it kept the skirt front smooth but helped support the back poufs. That back side became HUGE.

c.1885 Bustle at LACMA

c.1885 Bustle at LACMA – Los Angeles County Museum of Art


You might know the 1880s Bustle as “fashion of the Wild, Wild West.” It was fashionable yet conventional, and they had left all the frou-frou of the 70s behind. Instead, they decided to play with style lines of the skirts by moving the overskirt layers off center. It was all asymmetrical, baby!

Tailoring was especially noticeable on these dresses. The fit was very fine. The fabrics were high-end wool, and satins –many times combined. Necklines were high to the neck. Sleeves hugged the arm showing minimal decoration. By nightfall, arms were fully exposed with perhaps only a flutter or two of lace attached to the bodice armhole.

It was all refined and elegant. No more foofy-ness from childhood. However, laces were widely popular and hung in graceful drapes in-between fabric panels of the skirts.

The last hurrah came around 1889 when sleeves started to pouf a fit at the top. This, they decided, was much easier to maneuver than large, bustled skirts…. Little did they know that in just a few years they’d have to slide sideways through the door because of their enormous sleeve width. But that’s a topic for another day….

1885 Godey's Lady's Book

1885 Godey’s Lady’s Book

Which Bustle Era do you gravitate to – the 1870s for its puffy skirts, the Natural Form for its slim silhouette, or the 1880s for the tailored appearance?


  1. Kim Poovey says

    Love this! I am definitely an early bustle-natural form girl. I have never liked the late bustle era:).



  2. Diane Ullman says

    It’s a great article, Jennifer. I’ve re-read it several times when I needed a refrsher.

    I still love the elegance of the elliptical hoop and the girliness of the 1870s bustle. I am entirely too horizontal to carry off the Natural Form and the high necklines of the late bustle are suffocating and unattractive on my build.

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