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A bustle is a crucial part of women's costume from the 1800s. It supported and elevated the heavy drapery in the rear of 19th century dresses so that the dresses did not drag or become misshapen over the course of the day. Historically, bustles took several forms before disappearing altogether in the early part of the 20th century. Women today usually wear bustles with costumes only, although some formal wear and high fashion integrates a bustle.
The origins of the bustle lie in the crinoline, a stiff framework which was positioned under early 19th century dresses. Crinolines gave these dresses their characteristic full, belled shape. They were also somewhat uncomfortable and difficult to wear, and women had difficulty maneuvering in their extremely heavy, full dresses. As a result, the shape of the crinoline started to change, with the sides and front of the bell shape trimming down, and the draping migrating to the back of the dress. The bustle emerged to accommodate the changing fashion.
A bustle fastens below the waist, and in a full form it consists of a partially circular framework which elevates the back of the dress and thrusts it away from the rear. Looking at a woman wearing a bustle from the side, one might be forgiven for thinking that she had a formidable rear end, but this illusion is in fact created by the bustle. The full flowing skirts and pronounced drapery in the back slimmed women's waistlines, giving them a highly desirable hourglass figure.
Early bustles had slim sides, some draping in front, and a very full back. By the late 1800s, the front of the dress had flattened out as well. All of these bustles were usually made with wire or stiff cloth framework, attached to a belt at the waist. As bustles began to shrink, some started to take the form of pads of fabric, which made the form of the dress much more streamlined. Changing fashions for women's figures made the bustle obsolete in the early years of the 20th century.
The fashion standards for dresses required the use of a bustle, because otherwise the heavy fabric in the rear of a dress would have pulled the dress out of shape. However, the bustle was also a practical measure, because the dress could be hooked to the bustle, pulling it well clear of dirty ground and dance floors. Some modern dresses include attachments for bustles for this very reason. Many brides, for example, wear a bustle at their reception so that the full train of the wedding dress is not damaged.
@Scrbblechick -- Can you imagine trying to bustle some of these trumpet/mermaid gowns that have voluminous trains? Ridiculous.
I always thought the bustle must have been even more inconvenient than a hoopskirt. Hoops are big and unwieldy, but you can sit in them, with some practice. Bustles aren't quite as forgiving. That probably explains why young ladies were taught to sit at the very edge of chairs -- their bustles wouldn't get in the way.
Actually, most brides don't wear a bustle under their gowns -- the trains themselves are bustled, which means they are fastened underneath the skirt by a series of hook-and-eye fastenings. The larger the train, the more hooks. A large train will definitely give the appearance of wearing a bustle, though. One of my friends had a cathedral length train on her gown and I think she said it took 12 hooks to bustle it correctly. My train had one, but it was a waltz length and not heavy fabric.
Some brides do have actual bustles under their gowns, if the train is extremely long or the satin is very heavy. This does help take up some of the weight off the bride's neck and back. They're not common, though.
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