Victorian Bustle: Hidden Secret Behind the 1880s Silhouette

By the 1880s, the soft curve bustle dresses of the early 1870s were replaced with a new distinct silhouette featuring a severely tailored figure from the front and added draperies to the back. The train had disappeared and a bustle or tournure with a fitted gored skirt produced a profile straight in the front, hugging the hips, and exploding into a back fullness that was gathered or pleated.

Bustle silhouette highlighted in Victorian dresses from 1888.

Many of the Victorian costumes of the 1880s featured long draped overdresses, which reached to the top of a narrow flounce, side by side with a very short tunic, which was not more than a large scarf. The skirt would fall straight and flat in front and a small tournure or bustle was worn to support the back drapery, giving the skirt below the waist a bouffant appearance.

Basques, pointed waists, coat bodices, and round waists with belts were all worn with the new bustle skirts; the selection of the particular style of top was made to suit the figure of the wearer. Sleeves were placed high up on the shoulders making the shoulder seams quite short, giving a narrower appearance to the broad-chested woman but a rather unbecoming look to the very thin woman. The 1880s dresses were styled quite high about the neck at the back to accommodate the hair, which was worn generally high.

“]An absolute necessity for this Victorian style of dress was a well-fitting tournure or bustle and it soon became an indispensable accessory to a lady’s costume. The bustle was a device to expand the skirt of the dress below the waist.


Victorian Butles from the 1880s.


These padded devices were used to add back fullness to the hard-edged front lines of the 1880s silhouette. The various styles of bustles were made with wires, springs, mohair padding and fabric, appearing both archaic and torturous. Although lace appeared out-of-place on the bustle, it was often incorporated into the design. But, although the tournure was suitable for a walking dress, it was not always sufficient to maintain the voluminous trained skirt of an evening dress.

The best way of providing a well-shaped foundation for the considerable skirt of an 1880s evening dress was to wear a jupon, a style of underskirt, with a shaped front piece, a side gore, pleated to fit the figure over the hips, and a straight breadth at the back. In the back breadth, casings were made to admit a number of rows of steel graduated in length. The steels were bought in sets, each steel being bound at the end with metal, and having a pierced hole, to allow it to be easily secured. Tapes were sewn at the end of every other steel, which, being tied, formed a well-shaped and securely fitting tournure. Nevertheless, if the lady preferred to wear the tournure separate and apart from her skirt, it would be made comparatively secure by fastening broad bands of elastic to either side, and by sewing weights round the bottom edge under the kilt.

Two 1886 Victorian ball gowns featuring trained skirts supported by bustles.

Mrs. A. Taft with Maria Herron and Fanny Taft wearing similar Victorian fashions.

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