I am not a vintage collector, but sometimes a vintage garment I’ve encountered lingers in my mind. I photographed this bustle dress, probably from the 1880s, purely for the purpose of inventorying a large collection, but it’s one of those outfits I continue to puzzle over. The big question for me is: why does it still exist in such “barely-worn” condition?
After 140 years, it had no shattered silk, not even in the folds of the bustle. It did not show signs of alteration, or fading, or cannibalization — and there was a lot of good fabric in its skirt. It would have been easy to update this bodice with 1890s sleeves and a shorter waistline. Or to make a child’s dress from the fabric. So . . .
Why Didn’t Its Original Owner Wear It Out?
There were slight perspiration stains in the armpits, so we know she wore it at least once. One logical explanation for its fine state of preservation could be that it went out of fashion soon after she had it made. It’s possible; I didn’t have a proper bustle support, so I had to stuff the back of the skirt with as much crumpled paper and batting as I could get my hands on. I’m pretty sure the jut of the bustle should be more nearly horizontal, like this 1885 dress by Worth, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum.
“My” dress isn’t nearly as elaborate. This Worth design is encrusted with applied trim and has an even longer front bodice, almost to the pelvic bone:
This evening costume by Worth has a buttoned basque rather like “my” dress, but it dates from 1880; its bustle is not yet extreme, at least not at the waist.
And for an example of a really outrageous profile, the Metropolitan Museum has this side view of an unlabeled evening gown from 1885:
It’s easy to understand how that dress, which is so “of its moment,” would not get many wearings before it fell out of favor; for one thing, it’s too memorable to appear repeatedly at the level of society that wears such expensive clothes.
A Middle Class Woman’s Bustle Dress
But this outfit which I wonder about is middle class; of good quality, but not so memorable that a woman would abandon it because all her friends had seen it. Incidentally, it is possible to get into it without the aid of a maid.
Of its many beautiful metal buttons, only one is missing, the one at the top of the throat. When being worn, this area would have been covered by a lace jabot, often secured by a large brooch, so it’s even possible that the owner removed that button on purpose to allow a frill on her blouse to fall through. You can see a mark left by a brooch pin on the velvet collar, too.
The velvet is not worn; it just photographs a different color depending on the direction of the pile.
Here is a slightly better view (sorry about the hasty photos) of the beautiful buttons, which have paste gems in their centers . . .
. . . and which also trimmed the flaps at the back of the bodice:
Even if the dress went out of fashion, why did no one harvest these 27 buttons for re-use?
Overall, there is a slightly military flavor to the metal buttons, the back peplum detail, and the suggestion of a man’s lapels created by the velvet front trim. I can picture Ibsen’s character Hedda Gabler (spoiler alert if you click!) being attracted to such military details.
The wine-brown silk and burgundy velvet fabrics would have been ready for re-use, too. This dress was not petite; it had a center back-to-waist measurement of 16″, a 34″ bust, and a 26″ (made for a corseted) waist.
There was plenty of excellent silk taffeta in the skirt:
Look at the lovely workmanship on the seam finishes, etc.
This looks like professional construction to me; I think a dressmaker, not the wearer, made this dress. The lining is brown cotton sateen. The front of the skirt has a panel of velvet emerging from under the draped “apron,” and a pleated ruffle inside the hem to protect it from wear.
Which brings me back to the reason this outfit lingers in my mind. Why didn’t the woman who owned this dress go on wearing it until it began to look soiled or worn out? And why was it stored so perfectly for over a century, instead of being plundered for buttons, fabric and trims to make newer clothing in the 1890s?
One happy possibility is that the owner became pregnant and couldn’t wear it for a while; perhaps, by the time her figure returned to normal, the fashion was outmoded. Perhaps there was a death in the immediate family, and, again, by the time she was out of mourning clothes a year later, the fashion for bustles had passed. But there is something about the careful preservation of this garment that makes me wonder if it was the wearer who died, so that her grieving family packed it and saved it, as my father once saved my mother’s clothes.
“The Bustle in a House
The Morning after Death,
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon Earth.
The Sweeping up the Heart,
The putting Love away
We shall not want to use again
Until Eternity–” –Emily Dickinson
Of course, Dickinson was not punning upon the word “Bustle” as she was upon “Morning, ” but that word may be a subconscious reason why this outfit made me think of this poem.
P.S. I have written as if this outfit was from the 1880s; if you have more expertise and can date it to the 1870s, please comment.