A bustle was a pad or frame worn under a skirt to support the fullness and drapery at the back of a woman’s skirt. Though the bustle had long occupied a place in a well-dressed woman’s wardrobe, it was clearly the article of clothing that was most vilified, especially by men.
The bustle was also blamed for many women’s health problems, including squeezed or misplaced organs.
Shopkeepers considered bustles a nuisance. Shops tended to be small and crowded and bustles were thought to take up too much space.
Shopkeepers weren’t the only ones complaining about the size of bustles. An editorial in a Boston newspaper asked why there was no city ordinance prohibiting bustles from protruding more than a foot in length beyond the sidewalk.
Bustles also confounded soldiers during the Civil War. Enterprising women used bustles as a safe-deposit box to hide jewelry and other valuables from marauders. Bustles would be ripped apart and stuffed with treasures. It worked for a while. But then some soldiers noticed a marked increase in the size and proportions of women’s behinds and grew suspicious. The discovery resulted in the theft of many bustles.
Bustles also caused an uproar with freight agents. Since it was cheaper to ship wire goods than dry goods, merchants listed bustles as wire goods. Freight agents argued that bustles were made from feathers and wool and had no wire. Merchants said that bustles superseded hoop skirts, which gave them every right to be billed as wire goods. This view eventually prevailed, but freight agents weren’t willing to give up so easily; they simply raised the cost of shipping wire goods.
Bustles came in many shapes and styles. As one Victorian merchant said, “There were more styles of bustles than herrings in a box.” The Washboard bustle was ribbed like a washboard. The bustle was considered a good deal for the merchant. For it was almost impossible to sit down without smashing the washboard, thus necessitating another trip to the store to replace it.
There was also the Brooklyn Bridge bustle, also known as the suspension Bridge or Two-Story bustle. As the name suggested, this was a series of bustles that extended down to the knees.
Another type of bustle was the Wind bustle, made of rubber. This included a rubber hose so that it could be inflated. This bustle was especially handy should a woman suddenly find herself in water, as it served double-duty as a life preserver.
Some practical women would wear only bustles they made themselves out of newspapers.
Mrs. Grover Cleveland is credited for unwittingly causing the demise of the bustle. The story goes that two Washington newspaper reporters had nothing to report during a hot July. So, they made up a story that President Cleveland’s wife had abandoned the bustle. According to newspaper reports, Mrs. Cleveland later visited a department store and asked to see their bustles. Supposedly, the merchant told her that since news broke that she had given up bustles, none had sold and had been moved to the basement.
Mrs. Cleveland then turned to her companion and said, “Well, if they say I’ve quit wearing the bustle, then I guess that’s what I need to do.”
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