The Trouble with Bustles: Victorian Fashion in the 19th Century News

Punch, 1885.

Punch, 1885.

Extreme fashions have always incited a fair amount of criticism and ridicule. During the 1870s and 1880s, this criticism was primarily reserved for the bustle.  Bustles were routinely satirized in magazines like Punch and featured as the subject of countless humorous—and not so humorous—newspaper articles.  Below are just a few of the many interesting bustle stories from the 19th century news, from an exploding bustle during a reading by author Charles Dickens to a bulk of bustles cast into the sea.

Charles Dickens and the Exploding Bustle

An article in the 1888 edition of the Aberdeen Evening Express reports the tale of a reading that was given by famed Victorian author Charles Dickens at the First Congregational Church in the city of San Francisco.  A “finely formed lady with patrician features and a dignified gait” entered the church after the reading had already begun.  She was on the arm of her husband, a stern gentleman with a “military bearing.”  As the article relates:

“On reaching a seat a few yards from the platform she gave a swing to her dress as she attempted to sit down gracefully.  But her foot caught in the carpet, and she stumbled and fell heavily on the seat.  As she did so a muffled report was heard, and the lady was observed to collapse with a lurch.  Her face turned a deathly pale, and then a carmine hue, and she sprang to her feet in great confusion.”

Centaur and Bustle, Fliegende Blätter Magazine, 1880s

Centaur and Bustle, Fliegende Blätter Magazine, 1880s

Dickens stopped the reading at the sound of the explosion, but having ascertained that nothing was wrong, he continued.  Meanwhile, the knowing crowd—who had “divined the nature of the trouble”—commenced smiling and tittering.  The lady was mortified.  Her husband, however, was wholly unsympathetic to her distress.  He commanded her to resume her seat and “not to look and act so foolishly.”  As the article goes on to state:

“But the explosion of a patent bustle is no small matter to a lady, and although she at length consented to stay, she evidently felt ill at ease all the evening.  A large shawl was thrown over her shoulders to hide the blushes which even stole around the back of her neck.  It was an accident deserving of the most sympathetic consideration, but instead it received only ridicule.”

Punch, 1870.

Punch, 1870.

The lady with the exploding bustle would go on to sue her dressmaker.  The judge in the case was initially perplexed by such a lawsuit.  The Aberdeen Evening Express quotes him as saying:

“I have read of bustles being made of horsehair, muslin, newspapers, pillows, bird cages, and even quilts.  I have heard of alarm clocks striking the hour within the folds of a lady’s dress.  Smuggled cigars, jewellery [sic], and brandy have also been brought to light, but I never before heard of an air-tight bustle exploding in church and then being made the subject of a civil suit.”

The judge went on to state that, “not being married yet” himself, the case was “somewhat perplexing” to him.  He nevertheless endeavored to apply the law to the best of his ability.  He ruled in favor of the plaintiff, awarding her the sum of $11.50.

A Salvation Army Bustle

Some objections to the fashion in bustles had more to do with morality than simple good taste.  In early 1888, Captain Eric Von Alexson and Captain Polly Bran, both of the Salvation Army, were married in a grand ceremony in Little Falls, New York.  Unfortunately, wedded bliss did not last long.  Polly’s predilection for wearing a bustle landed the pair in hot water with their employers.  An 1888 edition of the Aberdeen Evening Express reports that Captain T. E. Moore of the Salvation Army wrote to Captain von Alexson, stating:

“I have been compelled to change my mind as to your going to Kansas in the Army of America.  I do not think your wife in at all a condition to lead others away from the world and sin, and must say I am astonished to think you could uphold an officer, though she be your wife, in dressing herself in the manner Mrs. Alexson did.  She was kindly reproved and shown the wrong, but persisted in wearing a bustle on her back that disgusted every decent person.  Until I see her in sincere godliness I cannot send her to another station.”

THE Crinoletta Disfigurans, An Old Parasite in a New Form, Punch, 1882.

The Crinoletta Disfigurans, An Old Parasite in a New Form, Punch, 1882.

A Bustle Burglary

There was more to 19th century bustle outrage than good old-fashioned morality.  As alluded to by the judge in the case of the exploding bustle, actual crimes were being committed with the aid of bustles.  In 1888, at the Birmingham Assizes, two young ladies were sentenced to twelve months imprisonment for a burglary involving their bustles.  An 1888 issue of the Sheffield Daily Telegraph reports:

Sheffield Daily Telegraph, August 2, 1888.

Sheffield Daily Telegraph, August 2, 1888.

Rabbits and Bustles

Grands Magasin du La Samaritaine Saison, 1886.

There are numerous reports of stolen goods being hidden within the bustles of Victorian era female criminals.  In the following story, however, the stolen goods in question were rather unique.  An 1887 edition of the Gloucestershire Echo reports:

“The three women, Mary Wynne, Ann Gullimore, and Mary Jones, who were last week arrested by the Denbighshire police carrying twenty rabbits round their waists in the shape of dress improvers, were on Saturday brought up at the Denbigh Borough Police-court.  It was alleged by the police that the women were carrying the booty for their husbands.  In defense, the women said they were gathering mushrooms and whilst doing so they found the rabbits, nets, &c.  The prisoners were remanded for a fortnight on a point of law, bail being accepted.”

A Ban on Bustles in the workplace

Many 19th century employers objected to bustles in the workplace.  In 1888, the manager of a factory in America went so far as to ban them altogether.  When asked to justify this “draconian law,” the manager provided a calculation which illustrated the amount of time lost each year as a result of ladies wearing bustles.  An 1888 edition of the Grantham Journal reports:

Grantham Journal, July 28, 1888.

Grantham Journal, July 28, 1888.

Bustles in the Sea

By the 1890s, the extreme bustle silhouette had fallen from favor.  As a result, some tradesmen were left with a large stock of these “obsolete feminine adornments.”  In 1893, a draper in Melbourne came up with an interesting solution to this dilemma.  An issue of the South Wales Daily News reports:

Grands Magasin du La Samaritaine Saison, 1886.

“The Melbourne drapers who have large stocks of saleable bustles on hand are now busy throwing these obsolete feminine adornments into the sea.  The only way to recover the import duty paid on them is to re-export, so the bustles are exported accordingly, and when the vessel gets outside the Heads they are heaved overboard.  Sometimes, within the vicinity of Queenscliff, the sea is dotted all over with bustles.”

The Melbourne draper’s decision to cast his bustles into the sea inspired a great many humorous articles in the 19th century news.  For example, an 1893 edition of the Sheffield Evening Telegraph, titled “Fashions for Mermaids,” suggests:

“Mermaids who have their abode in the sea round Melbourne are at present enabled to deck themselves out in the Parisian fashions of a bygone season.”

Pointing out that “fashions are necessarily limited in the grottos of the ocean,” the article goes on to state:

“…Parisian bustles will afford opportunities of a material addition to the stereotyped smile which is understood—from the descriptions of the few favoured with private views—to be the main attire of the sirens of the sea.  There is reasonable hope that by the distribution of the bustle we may learn more of the hitherto mysterious mermaids.”

Dimity Bustle, 1881.

Naturally, there is more to the Victorian era bustle than humorous anecdotes and satirical sketches.  Gowns of the 1870s and 1880s were actually quite beautiful.  I hope to give a little more insight into them—bustles and all—in the next installment of my series on 19th century gowns, which will cover the 1870s.  Until then, I hope you have enjoyed this brief sampling of bustles in the 19th century news.

**Author’s Note: The account of the bustle exploding at a Charles Dickens reading was printed in 1888 in multiple Victorian papers, including the Royal Cornwall Gazette, the Western Daily Press, the Aberdeen Evening Express, and the Aberdeen Journal. However, as you will know if you read my post on literary obituaries, Dickens died in 1870. I cannot account for the lapse in time in reporting this story, but the newspaper quotes are, indeed, accurate as cited.


Works Referenced or Cited in this Article

“Burglars and Bustles.”  Sheffield Daily Telegraph.  August 2, 1888.

“The Bustle Burst.”  Aberdeen Evening Express.  September 29, 1888.

“Bustles for the Mermaids.”  Aberdeen Evening Express.  June 19, 1893.

“Bustles in the Sea.”  South Wales Daily News.  June 17, 1893.

“Fashions for Mermaids.”  Sheffield Evening Telegraph.  June 17, 1893.

“The Loss in Bustles.”  Grantham Journal.  July 28, 1888.

“An Offensive Bustle.”  Aberdeen Evening Express.  February 21, 1888.

“Rabbits and Bustles.”  Gloucestershire Echo.  September 19, 1887.


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49 thoughts on “The Trouble with Bustles: Victorian Fashion in the 19th Century News

  1. Sarah says:

    I’m not sure whether I enjoyed the tale of the exploding bustle or the ingenious rabbit smuggling the most – both were hilarious – but i always enjoy your thoroughly researched and richly detailed posts. Wonderful!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Thanks so much, Sarah 🙂 I’m glad you enjoy my posts! It’s hard to pick a favorite bustle anecdote, though I have to laugh when I imagine those female poachers draping rabbits under their skirts to simulate a bustle.

      Like

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Thanks Sarah 🙂 I think the bustle in the first story was probably made of some sort of thin wire cage combined with fabric that the lady crushed by sitting on it so hard. And [sic] is after jewellery because it is a misspelling. It’s just a way to indicate that the quote stands as is, misspellings and all.

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      • Mimi Matthews says:

        I’m aware, but the majority of my readers aren’t British and (when I can remember to do it!) I generally note if something is spelled in a way they would think is incorrect. It’s one of those damned if you do, damned if you don’t situations, however. Someone once contacted me directly to tell me that I had spelled something wrong when I used a British spelling.

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      • Sarah Waldock says:

        It was a political move in the Regency era to ‘standardise’ spelling to make it easier, supposedly, but to my mind it has lost nuances of pronunciation. However, language shifts and changes, I suppose, and we no longer – except the Shakespeareans amongst us – get the cheap jokes Shakespeare slung in, when ‘hour’ and ‘whore’ were pronounced the same because language is subject to drift. Indeed even since Austen’s time, pronunciations have changed, and the rhyming couplets of her childhood writings and those of her siblings no longer rhyme.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Sarah Waldock says:

        I know what [sic] is, but it’s not a miss-spelling. Jewellery is spelled correctly. I know some people try to spell it jewelry nowadays, but that isn’t really correct. At least, not in England. It misses out a syllable and comes from sloppy pronunciation and missing the ‘er’ like people who spell ‘speciality’ as ‘specialty’ because they don’t say the ‘i-a-ty’ in it.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Yes, I know. It was the newspaper article which was published in 1888. The story isn’t inaccurate. The fault is mine for making the date of the reading sound like the same date as the article. I’ve edited the confusing sentence to make it clearer.

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  2. Dorothy says:

    There is something intrinsically funny about bustles. I have a feeling the exploding bustle – in San Francisco, no less – is an urban legend (Dickens died in 1870.) but it is still fun!

    My great-grandma provided a good deal of fun for the neighbors when she put on her mother’s bustle and went into town “shopping” in it. As she was born in 1866, this was during the “first bustle” period of the 1870s.

    I have a dress from the second bustle period (c. 1883) that belonged to my great-grandmother on the other side of the family. I had never believed ordinary ladies wore the larger bustles, but when I displayed the dress on a form I was amazed at the number of plastic bags that were necessary to plump the bustle out properly! (If I knew how I’d send you a photo!)

    Liked by 1 person

      • Dorothy says:

        Ladies sat up very straight without leaning back. Of course it was tiring, but as my grandmother (b. 1883) used to say, “You’ve got to suffer to shine!” Proper posture was very important until almost the end of the century. Queen Victoria was not the only lady who had a sprig of holly pinned to the front of her dress when she was a child to teach her to keep her chin up and not slouch!

        There were “bustle chairs” constructed to make sitting easier. Do an Image search for that term to see examples.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Mimi Matthews says:

        I had a section that I almost included in this post about sitting with a bustle. Here’s a quote from a pro-bustle article in the Royal Cornwall Gazette, Sept. 20, 1888: “When a bustle decked woman sits down, she does so sidewise. There is a pretty little trick in it. She pretends she is going to sit on the right side of the chair and makes her first movement in that direction; but just as she reaches the chair she moves gracefully to the other side, the bustle rolls to the right, entirely out of the way of the sitter, and the problem is solved.”

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    • Mimi Matthews says:

      You’re too right about Dickens death in 1870, Dorothy. 1888 was the date of the newspaper article, not the date of the incident. I’ll edit to make it more clear. I agree with you about the extreme bustles. I think – as with anything – the most extreme fashions always get the most press, but in reality (just as today) the Victorians generally wore more moderate sized bustles (as they did with crinolines!). I’d love to see a photo of your great grandmother’s dress! I think you might be able to send it through the contact form.

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  3. Dorothy says:

    They do need some managing and practice, I understand! Great-grandma used to tell a joke about a man who thought he put his hat down on a table and was amazed to see his hat riding away on a lady’s bustle!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pam Shropshire says:

    I always enjoy your articles but this one was especially funny. I, too, loved the exploding bustle and the stolen rabbit stories, but the other one that really caught my attention was the employer who calculated how much lost production time resulted from bustle-wearing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Dorothy, all of my articles are based on cited articles. This story of Dickens in San Francisco was reported in multiple newspapers in 1888 including the Royal Cornwall Gazette, the Western Daily Press, the Aberdeen Evening Express, and the Aberdeen Journal. Is the story itself merely a legend? Who the heck knows. I don’t write posts on my own surmises (if I did this would be a whole different site!). I can only quote what is actually printed in the 19th century news.

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  5. Vickie says:

    Oh dear Mimi – how amusing this has been and how much my husband and I enjoyed reading it! You are so generous and good spirited to respond to every comment so politely – I don’t think I have seen another site that does this as well as you. Our hats (and bustles) are off to you for your excellent writing, diplomatic responses and we certainly do look forward to your articles every week! Two fans in America!

    Liked by 1 person

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