Tag Archives: vintage bustle dress

Martha, Is That You?

George and Martha Washington in illustration for article in Delineator, February 1925, p. 19.

George and Martha Washington in an illustration for an article in Delineator, February 1925, p. 19.

I was making an inventory of a vintage costume collection for a friend, trying not to spend too much time on items with little resale value. I found a section of bustle dresses, or parts of them, that were clearly “the real thing.”

Vintage bustle dress, skirt missing.

Vintage bustle dress, skirt missing. Too small to fasten on the mannequin.

Vintage bustle dress , embroidered buttons. Details.

Vintage bustle dress, embroidered buttons. Details. The fabric is substantial.

Vintage brown taffeta bustle dress top; skirt missing.

Vintage brown taffeta bustle dress top; skirt missing. The long overdress fitting snugly at the hips, with gathers almost over the pelvis, can be seen in 1879-1880.

I never had time to photograph that one on a mannequin. The front with long, low gathering is very distinctive.

Back detail of late Victorian overdress. Skirt missing.

Back and fabric detail of late Victorian overdress. Brocade, satin, and velvet.

Front of long dress in autumn colors, satin underskirt.

Front of long dress in autumn colors, satin underskirt.

Late Victorian bustle dress, side view.

Late Victorian bustle dress, side view. Changeable taffeta.

A vintage bustle dress with back draperies pulled up, rather like a 19th century version of an 18th century polonaise.

A vintage bustle dress with back draperies pulled up, rather like a 19th century version of an 18th century polonaise. Skirt missing; a petticoat is visible.

All those crisp fabrics — and then I reached into the “bustle era” hanging storage and put my hand on this one:

A polaise -- sort of. Print cotton fabric, soft and droopy, rather too small in circumference....

Not a bustle, but a polonaise — sort of. It has elements of the robe a la francaise. Print cotton fabric, soft and droopy, rather too small in circumference…. for a moment, I thought it might be a “Dolly Varden dress.” (An 1870’s fad based on an 18th c. character in a Dickens novel.)

But, no, it’s a masquerade costume — meant to be 18th century — from a period that favored soft, droopy fabrics, no boning, and a skirt less full than the 1780’s.

 Martha Washington costume pattern, Butterick, 1924.

Martha Washington costume pattern 4258, Butterick, 1924.  (It is not this exact dress, but shows the effects of 1920’s style on the perception of 1780’s fashions.)

The front of the costume was never photographed on a mannequin, but you can see, as it hangs on a coat hanger (that’s how I found it) that the sheer ruffles on each side of the front are long enough to be worn crossed like the “Martha Washington” costume’s fichu:

Top of a masquerade or theatrical costume made in the the 20th century, but suggesting the Colonial period.

Top of a masquerade or theatrical costume made in the the 20th century, but suggesting the Colonial period. The sheer ruffles on the front are very long, probably meant to cross over the breast and waist. The machine stitching on the sleeve flounces is crude.

It has an interior bodice made of netting — a practice I have seen in dresses of the nineteen-teens.

The inner bodice of costume is made of netting. A theatrical costume would be lined with a strong fabric, like muslin, to take the strain off the seams -- and to allow for a tight fit over a period corset.

The inner bodice of costume is made of netting. A theatrical costume would normally be flat-lined with a strong fabric, like muslin, to take the strain off the seams — and to allow for a tight fit over a period corset.

All the sewing is a bit sloppy — and  why not, for a costume that might be worn only once?

These pieces of twill tape inside the skirt hold up the poufs of the polonaise.

These pieces of twill tape inside the skirt hold up the “Polonaise” poufs of the overskirt.

At the time when I found it, I wondered why my friend had collected something so clearly not “the real thing.”

But, many years afterward, I remembered it when I realized that pattern companies have been making “colonial lady” and “Marie Antoinette” patterns for costume parties, Halloween parties, centennials and local history pageants, 4th of July parties, and amateur theatricals for a very long time.

A Martha Washington costume from Butterick, February 1924. It is wrong, wrong, wrong, but dressing up in a masquerade costume like this was more glamorous and romantic than many other options.

A “Martha Washington” costume from Butterick, February 1924. As far as historic accuracy goes, it is pretty awful, but dressing up in a masquerade costume like this was more glamorous and romantic than many other options.

Click here for another Butterick  “Martha Washington”  pattern, circa 1941, No. 1695. The dress my friend collected does a better job of interpreting the back of an 18th century dress than either of the Butterick patterns.

Martha Washington Costume pattern 4258 and Continental suit costume pattern, Delineator, Feb. 1925, p. 37.

Martha Washington costume pattern 4258 and Continental suit costume pattern 4262, Delineator, Feb. 1925, p. 37.

 

 

 

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Filed under 1700s, 1870s to 1900s fashions, 1920s, Costumes for the 18th Century, Costumes for the 19th century, Dresses, Late Victorian fashions, Old Advertisements & Popular Culture, Tricks of the Costumer's Trade, Uncategorized, Vintage Garments: The Real Thing, Vintage patterns

A Memorable Bustle Dress

A bustle dress (bodice and skirt) from the 1880s. Private collection.

A bustle dress (bodice and skirt) circa 1880s. Private collection.

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?

Front of bodice, 1880s bustle dress.

Front of bodice, 1880s bustle dress.

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.

Side view of a similar gown in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum. Worth, 1885.

Side view of a similar gown in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum. Designed by Worth, 1885.

“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:

Front view of Worth dress, 1885, in Metropolitan Museum.

Front view of Worth dress, 1885, in Metropolitan Museum.

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.

1880 gown by Worth, Collection of the Metropolitan Museum.

1880 gown by Worth, Collection of the Metropolitan Museum.

And for an example of a really outrageous profile, the Metropolitan Museum has this side view of an unlabeled evening gown from 1885:

1885 extreme bustle dress, Metropolitan Museum Collection.

1885 extreme bustle dress, Metropolitan Museum Collection. Lovely as it is, it reminds me of a pantomime horse costume, with the actor playing the rear of the hose bent over and hugging the waist of the actor in front!

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.

A dress meant to be worn more than once.

A dress meant to be worn more than once.

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.

Collar and missing button. A mark left by a brooch pin is visible in the velvet.

Collar and missing button. A mark left by a brooch pin is visible in the velvet collar, at right.

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 . . .

Buttons on center front of bodice.

Buttons on center front of bodice. There is a  glittering stone in the center of each.

. . . and which also trimmed the flaps at the back of the bodice:

Back peplum and button trim.

Back peplum and button trim.

Even if the dress went out of fashion, why did no one harvest these 27 buttons for re-use?

The back view, on a very lopsided mannequin.

The back view, on a very lopsided mannequin.

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:

Skirt bustle, back view.

Skirt bustle, back view. Note the deliberate asymmetry.

Side view. The bustle seems to be too low, and there is extra fabric near the hem, too.

Side view. The bustle seems to be too low, and it hangs a little longer than the rest of the skirt hem. I think it needs a period cage bustle support under it.

Look at the lovely workmanship on the seam finishes, etc.

The edge binding in red stitches is a little surprise.

Inside the bodice. The edge binding in reddish stitches matching the  burgundy velvet is a nice surprise. They secure tiny rolled hems. The boning channels are feather-stitched, which was usual.

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. V027 hem detail pleats

And I mustn’t forget this pretty velvet watch pocket on the right side of the basque: V027 watch pocket

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.

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Filed under 1870s to 1900s fashions, Costumes for the 19th century, Dresses, Vintage Garments: The Real Thing