Saturday, September 10, 2011

From the Collection: An 1880s Wire Bustle Pad

Earlier this summer the boys, my mother, and I visited a nearby antique store and I came home with a wire bustle pad, a gift from a favorite dealer. He had a collection of long standing that he was slowing purging, and was pleased to find an appreciative home for something he admitted would find love only from a narrow niche of people.

What a treat, and I was delighted. Here it is, in detail and measured for you, so that together we can enjoy its fascinating construction and wonder who might have worn it. A small woman at the end of the 1880s, when bustles were falling out of fashion? Or a young girl? If the latter, we might imagine how she felt to wear such padding, light though it might be. If children then are anything like they are today, I imagine some girls fancied the grownup experience of looking fashionable, if uncomfortable, while others felt it a silly and inconvenient impediment to their fun and movements. I would certainly fall in the latter camp!
Like I have, I think you'll find the construction ingenious. It's also a good example of economy of materials and labor. The materials are high quality and the construction sound and sturdy, but there is stitching and stapling only where absolutely needed. Manufacturing elegance, here, and awareness of labor time spent, but still a secure, quality result. Sure wish my microwave was as sturdy...our less than year-old machine broke, the manufacturer gave us money for replacement, but the first replacement was dented inside its multitude of undented wrappings, and the second has a defective face panel. Quality control went down the tubes there. Sigh.


The bustle itself is made of wire. It's probably steel wire, though it shows no signs of rust. The wires have some "memory" to them; that is, if you apply a little pressure to them, they resist the pressure rather than denting. The strength of the shape is assisted by the way the structure is made: the wires are woven almost like a very wide window screen (do you feel an idea coming on, bustle lovers?) However, the memory isn't that strong, for there are some small dents in the structure.

Of what the tapes are made, I do not know; they feel like cotton, but I've never felt linen tape and so cannot tell. The tapes themselves are pretty, if discolored. The central part of the width is herringboned, while the edges, to some 1/4 inch, are tabby-woven selvage. The effect is discreetly architectural.

Total weight? An ounce or two.

There are no labels or other manufacturing marks on the bustle.

Construction, So Far as I Can Tell

The bustle appears to have been made as a wire tube, which was then bent into a crescent and a fold introduced into the wide side. Each end was then squashed into a nub perhaps 1/4 inch thick, and capped like this, so far as I can tell:
  • A length of the same tape appears to have been wrapped about the nub. I cannot see it except where the outer covering, described below, has worn away.
  • A length of the same tape was folded. At the end of one long side it was sewn into a seam the width of the bustle nub. The tape was then turned inside out to protect the seam.
  • The nub was inserted into this little pocket.
  • The covering was stapled twice at each end of the forward edge of the tape, where the bustle itself starts. 
The bustle was then attached to a tape belt, like this:
  • A length of tape long enough to go around the waist was cut. 
  • The bustle was laid alongside it, off center, so that the tape belt would buckle at the side! That is accounted for by the fact that one end of the tape is longer than the other, and the short end is cut raw, folded once, and stapled. The other end is raw. The buckle is missing.
  • Another length of tape with a tiny seam allowance on each end was laid underneath the waist tape, so that it doesn't show when the bustle is worn. It's like a facing. It is as long as the distance across the interior edge of bustle where it would sit at the waist, but measured straight across from nub to nub. This means that when worn the bustle wire may not touch the wearer too much. Instead, the tape comes under stress and pulls each end of the bustle closer to the wearer.
  • Both short ends were turned and sewn under.
  • The long edge was sewn to the waist tape at the edge closest to the wearer.
  • This made another, very long pocket. The end of the outer nub wrapping tape was stuck inside, and stapled with one staple close to the nub. I cannot tell for sure, but I don't think the side of that tape is caught in with the facing each seam, and there is no other stitching holding it to the waist tape.
  • The other long edge of the facing was not sewn; you can see in the images that part of it has folded back.
  • In the middle of the facing pocket is another nub of tape, stapled. The edge is broken off and it doesn't stick out of the facing pocket. What it was for I do not know. You can see it in the image where I am holding the waist tape, just below.

I do not believe the metal itself would touch the wearer's waist

The Bustle's Age

An example of this very model of bustle was sold by Augusta Auctions some time ago as part of Lot: 521, March/April 2005 Vintage Clothing & Textile Auction, New Hope, PA, labeled as bustle pads from 1880 to 1890. That bustle pad was in better condition than mine is. If you look at the other examples, you can see some of the variety of bustle pads out there. 

Was It Meant for an Adult or a Child?

I did a little experiment. I carefully wrapped the waist tape to the mannequin. The tapes wrapped with an inch or two to spare. However, the result is just eeeny-weeny, and although the skirt would puff out a little, the bustle horns don't wrap well around the waist; you can see this on the back view, especially. Very out of proportion, sitting so awkwardly that it feels tippy. The horns of the bustle pad don't stretch to wrap the waistline enough so that the tension on the belt helps hold it close, but not too close.

If worn by an adult, the tournure given to the skirt would be narrow and miniscule. If the waist was 24 inches, and not my 29 inches, the pad would fit better, and so perhaps would suit the very tail end (sorry, couldn't help the joke) of the 1890s.

Look at the variety of bustles sold in that Augusta Auctions lot. "My" bustle pad is at the far right and is smaller than the others.

However, it might fit a young girl nicely, because the waist and hips would be narrower than an adult and the horns of the bustle wrap naturally and in proportion.

Not being a bustle expert, I just am not sure. I'd want to try it on a properly sized and fitted dress of the era to see. Can anyone illuminate this further?
How It Was Worn

Let's have a look at a few fashions.

Augusta Auctions sold this skating dress from the 1880s in lot 205, November 2009. One might expect smaller padding for this activity, but the tournure produced is still sizeable. The auction page has multiple pictures for you to peruse.

This September, 1890 Godey's fashion plate shows the very last gasp of the bustle era. Perhaps in this year my modest bustle pad might have worked?

Here's a girl's bustle dress from the 1880s, sold by Augusta Auctions, lot 326, April 2006, New Hope, PA. See that little bump on the back? Bustle...

Here is a fashion plate from Godey's, 1874, showing a girl in a bustle dress, with a similar bump-out on the back. Neither bump is extreme, it's just there. Were bustles similar to mine worn for the First Bustle era? I know that adult bustle pads of this sort existed. Whether this make and model was in circulation at that time, I don't know, but the effect in children's wear was very similar. Here below is a Godey's example from February of 1874.

What Can You Do with This Information?

As I examined this little bustle bad, methought, one could take an old window screen or other wire, and do something similar with it, for either a child or an adult. The result would be a modest bustle effect, but light and less uncomfortable than a full tail would be.

Sure hope someone takes this idea and runs with it!

In Other News...

I am rethinking the Madame Cobweb 1869 dress project. For some reason, despite initial enthusiasm, I became sated with the style after researching it during vacation. Since 2008 I have aged some, and what seemed handsome then, now, after years of Regency wear and looking at robust 18th century originals on which the early 1870s inspired themselves, feels prettified, rather child-like, and out of my current mood.

Further, there are some house projects burning to be done: a cushion for the big early 19th century Empire settee in the upstairs hallway, curtains. While I am at Mom's, I could  make at least one of those projects.

Hard to say.We shall see.


Kleidung um 1800 said...

What a lovely find!
It's always fun to follow your research and whatever you'll come up with I'm looking forward to seeing the result of your projects!

There's simply too little time and too many interesting things...sigh...


P.S. Have you received your library copy of the "Bassermann Jordan", yet?!

ZipZip said...

Dear Sabine,
Good morning! I agree; never enough time :}

The library could not get me a copy of the "Bassermann Jordan" book, because there is no copy in the United States that is allowed to circulate, and they do not do overseas loans. I understood, of course, but am disappointed, because the book would be a superb resource.

Ah well.

A very happy September day to you; here one might call the light lambent: gentle, slanted, shining through the leaves and turning all gold and green.


Isis said...

That's very interestsing! Thank you for posting!

ZipZip said...

You are welcome. If I get a chance here shortly, I will post pictures of a child's crinoline, too, that has been in the collection some years. It's pretty neat.

Very best,


Mia said...

I'm a new reader, I love your historical research! I also volunteer for re-enactments of centuries past:

I 'd love for you to stop by my blog sometime!


ZipZip said...

Dear Mia,
A warm welcome and I hope you can take any ideas or thoughts you find here and use them happily!

Went and visited your blog and smiled; I'd been a frequent reader a year or two ago but had lost the link and was so glad to visit again.

Very best,


Granny_K said...

Your site was a great find for me today! I recently inherited a bunch of family keepsakes, and this little bustle was amongst the things in the container.
The ties are gone - just a remnant of cloth is left on one end.
Wonderful family ancestors, from the early 1900's, actually made lists describing some of the keepsakes. According to that list, it's a "Bustle belonging to"... my great-grandmother, Nancy H.(b 1848, d 1931). According to your dating of the bustle, she would not have used it as a child, but was a very, very small woman in the old photos.
Such a thing would only fit me quite loosely, if I only used it on one thigh! LOL

Thanks again for all of the wonderful information - Bless you!

Natalie Ferguson said...

Dear Granny_K,

How neat! You are really lucky to have had relatives who made notes on your keepsakes. They take on so much more meaning that way. The notes themselves become little keepsakes.

Yes, I've learned since the post that this could have been a small adult bustle. I'll make a note of that on the page.

Very best,