The bustle is perhaps one of the most iconic symbols of Victorian fashion after the civil war. Its shape defined not only one era of style in the 19th Century, but it also had a revival after it had initially fallen out of fashion for the natural form shape. While all the fashion movements of the 19th Century had their own sense of elegance and beauty, there is no denying the popularity of the bustle even today with neo-victorianists, steampunks, and re-enactors alike.
You can do a quick search on Pinterest and find all sorts of tutorials and quick and dirty instructions on how to put together a bustle for your ensemble. However, not all of these are going to work if you’re going for any degree of historical likeness. In my experience, a lot of these “bustles” are modern alt fashion interpretations of bustles – which is fine if you’re going for a steampunk or burlesque look, but if you’re looking for functionality and some real hustle in your bustle – you’re going to need to go a little bit further then just gathering some fancy brocade onto a waistband and calling it a day.
The bustle is a support garment that goes under the gown to fill out the skirts and petticoats and help the wearer maintain the specific shape to their ensemble. They weren’t meant to be worn on the outside as fashion accessories and while there are many extant examples of fancy coloured fabrics being used to make bustles, there’s many more made of simple, plain, economical fabrics as well. You don’t need to spend a wad of cash on this, my recommendation for picking a nice bustle fabric is to pick something not too heavy, not too light, not too stiff, but with a nice, even, secure weave to the fabric to make sure it won’t stretch or tear under the weight of its work.
The key part of the bustle’s importance is that it’s a SUPPORT garment, and you have to approach it with that idea in mind when you take on historical costuming. Achieving the right silhouette is mostly dependent on what kind of support garments you’re wearing because they create the shape for you – Victorian women did NOT have that much booty after all. These structural garments create the shape of your outfit. The bustle itself had loads of different designs and forms depending on the decade in which they were worn. In fact, it had several transformations throughout the Victorian era: some had full hoops when it transitioned away from the bell shape of the civil war era, some had metal boning, some were made from padded rolls, and others were made with stiffened fabric. There’s a LOT to choose from and even some really wacky inventions that didn’t really make it to mass market, but that’s a post for another day.
For our purposes, we often use the Lobster Tail Bustle style. I love these because they are comfortable, lightweight, collapsible, and very easy to sit in. They give a really nice shape and they help keep the layers of petticoats and skirts off of our legs, creating a nice little “air tent” around our lower body to keep your legs cool and unobstructed by loose fabric.
These are usually worn over the corset and chemise but under the petticoats. And yes, the corset is just as necessary for the outfit as the bustle is. The corset is another vital support garment – it not only gives you the shape of the era, it also helps your body support the clothes. You do NOT want skirt bands and layers of fabric digging into your waist and hips without that extra support. Corsets might sound uncomfortable to some of you, but wearing these gowns without one is much, MUCH worse.
In this most recent little underwear refresh, I’ve opted to make two new bustles to replace a couple of the more grungy old ones we started out with. I called these “super bustles” because I’ve take our usual favourite bustle pattern (TV163 – 1887 Imperial Tournure in the “regular” size) and upgraded the froof a bit by adding some big extra ruffles down the back for extra body and shaping. These will be worn most often with late bustle period gowns so I wanted some serious structure in the back of it. Adding the extra ruffles was not hard. I used the same pattern piece used to make the bottom ruffle and just added them onto the back piece of the pattern once I was done applying the bias tape channels that hold in the boning.
And this pattern is very easy to make. It’s only a few pieces to put together, the boning channels are marked out for you, and it’s fairly straightforward. The hardest part might be the actual boning itself. You can order metal boning cut and tipped to size from Farthingales Corset supply (they’re Canadian too!). Personally we make so much stuff that I buy lengths and spools of the boning materials myself and cut and tip them in the studio as needed. But if you’re only making one of these, it might be better for you to just buy a pre-cut kit.
I can finish one of these in less than a day typically, if you’re new to this you might get it done in a weekend. I like to use a durable, medium weight fabric to make these up. Remember: you want something that isn’t too heavy, but also something that won’t strain or stretch under pressure.
Rough And Dirty Materials Tip:
I can already hear the costume mavens groaning to hear me say this: Previously, when we were first starting out and we didn’t have access to our materials of choice we used plastic tubing from Home Depot instead of metal boning. This was… adequate for getting us started as it was cheap and decent enough to pass for quality, but since we’ve graduated to using the steel bands we are MUCH happier with the results. So in a pinch, you can make substitutions, but I’m still very much inclined to stick with the metal hoop boning that we use now.
Do you have any tips on bustles? Have you achieved some serious hustle in your bustle? Don’t be afraid to drop us your comments here or on our Facebook Page to let us know what you’ve made!