History of Fashion and Dress
Regency  |  Romantic  |  Victorian- Crinoline  |  Victorian- First Bustle Victorian- Second Bustle  |  Edwardian

The Victorian Era- The Second Bustle Period and Aesthetic Dress: 1883-1890
Key terms:

Aesthetic dress
Cycling costume

watteau back

Norfolk suit
Little Lord Fauntleroy suit

Rosetti's Death of Beatrix
Beata Beatrix, 1863
pre-Raphaelite Artist
(Tate Gallery)

The Martyr of the Solway, 1871
John Millais-
pre-Raphaelite Artist
(Walker Art Gallery)

Ladies in cycling costumes c. 1890s
(Image courtesy The Detroit News)


Ladies tennis match c.1880s
(Image courtesy The Gallery of Costume)

Period Photo of Young lady in sporting attire- *Note the separate blouse and skirt and glengarry type hat
 (Ontario Archives)
Brief historical overview:

Queen Victoria ruled England and Ireland until her death in 1901- making the Victorian Era one of the longest in history. For the purpose of these pages, the Victorian Era will be broken into a series of periods- The Crinoline (1850-1869), First and Second Bustle (1870-1890), and Turn of the Century (1890-1900).

The ideas of Romanticism (1820-1850) never really disappeared in the decades following 1850 and continued to  influence many in the arts community. (See the artwork of Rossetti and Millais (left)). However, by the late 1870s, the Romantic connection with the past had reemerged as something quite different- the aesthetics movement. Essentially, the aesthetic movement in the arts was a break from the heavy themes of the period and proposed that art simply be created for art's sake. (See image by J.M. Whistler (below)).

Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink by Whistler
Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink c. 1871-74
by J.M. Whistler
American artist
(The Frick Collection)

By the 1880s, more and more citizens became frustrated with widespread corruption and social injustices brought forth by the rigidity of Victorianism, and ideas of reform began to surface. Woman spoke out against what they deemed the "ridiculousness of modern fashion."
"Any costumes which impair or contradict the natural lines of the human frame are to be rejected as ugly, injurious, or both; for they are the abuse of dress, not its proper use." -Mary Haweis, The Art of Dress 1879.

A main proponent of the Aesthetic dress movement (as it has come to be known) was the famous writer- Oscar Wilde.
"......all the most ungainly and uncomfortable articles of dress that fashion has ever in her folly prescribed, not the tight corset merely, but the farthingale, the vertugadin, the hoop, the crinoline, and that modern monstrosity the so-called "dress improver"[i.e.bustle] also, all of them have owed their origin to the same error- the error of not seeing that it is from the shoulders, and from the shoulders only, that all garments should be hung.
-Oscar Wilde, The Woman's Dress 1888-1890.

Aesthetic dress was the antithesis of modern fashion. It rejected the brightly colored, lavishly trimmed, tightly corseted gowns of the second bustle period. Instead, aesthetic dress boasted free-flowing, noncorseted gowns, completely unaided by "dress improvers" such as bustles or petticoats. If the motto of Aesthetic artists was "art for art's sake," then the motto for aesthetic dress was "simplicity and quality is beauty."

Another fashion trend born of the dress reform movement was the Cycling costume. In 1876, the modern bicycle was exhibited at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition and immediately captured the attention of the American public. By 1885, 50,000 American men, women and children were cycling and by 1896, that number had jumped to over 10 million.

Brooklyn Trolley carrying bicycles c. 1880s
(Image courtesy Bicycle Federation)

Along with cycling, sporting activities of all types were becoming national pastimes. Tennis, golf, skating, swimming, hiking, mountain climbing, gymnastics, and baseball were popular. And, as more men, women, and children began participating in sporting activities, special attire was needed.

Initially, women cycled in their bustles and corsets. However, as the decade progressed, English cycling knickers (or rationals as they were sometimes called) were introduced into popular fashion.

1890s bicycling suit
Bicycling costume c. 1890s
(The Henry Ford Collection)

1880s era day gown
Gown for day wear c. 1880s
(Image courtesy Past Perfect Vintage)

1886 evening gown
Evening gown c.1884-86
(The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

1885 dress
Dress for day wear c. 1885-87
(Manchester City Galleries)

Women's Clothing:

In 1881, designer Charles Worth reintroduced the bustle into high fashion and by 1883, women were once again wearing a variety of fashionable dress improvers, tournures, and padded undergarments to achieve the desired silhouette of the period. The bustle of this period was unlike that of its earlier counterpart. Instead of being long and conical, the bustle of the 1880s fit closer to the body, was smaller, and was very geometric. By the mid 1880s, the bustle was primarily made of steel caging. In France was referred to as the crinolette.

      1880s wire bustle
 (left) 1880s wire bustle, corset and combinations (The Victoria and Albert Museum)
(right) Bustle c. 1880s (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Corsets from this period were long bodied and tightly fitted at the waist. They were made of silk, cotton, linen, and leather. They were typically reinforced with steel boning and used a steel spoon busk to curve snuggly over the lower belly. As in the previous bustle period, the use of combinations continued to be popular.
1889 corset
Advertisement for a corset
c. 1889 The Delineator

As in the first bustle period, two piece bodice and skirt combinations were popular. However, 1880s era gowns typically had high, fitted collars- regardless whether it was part of the bodice itself or the blouse underneath. Sleeves set higher into the armhole than in the first bustle period and were generally close fitting. Skirts continued to be excessively trimmed but rarely had trains and often ended near the ankle (with the exception of evening wear). Bodices for evening had long, three-quarter, or short sleeves and were lavishly trimmed. Gowns with short sleeves were worn with elbow length gloves.

Aesthetic Dress:
Aesthetic dress of the late 19th century is sometimes also referred to as artistic dress. However, the term "artistic" tends to imply this fashion trend was limited only to those in the creative circles. While the fashion movement did get its origins amongst the artists of the period, aesthetic dress did spill over into mainstream fashion. Dresses were typically made of cotton, linen, velvet, wool, or oriental silk. They were slightly gathered at the waistline, had large puffed sleeves, long draping skirts, and often had a watteau back (a drape of fabric attached at the back of the neckline which falls to the floor). Favorite colors were lemon, green, cream, light brown, salmon-pink, deep purple, and other soft colors derived from natural dyes. The aesthetic dress movement lasted well into the early 20th century.

    1893 aesthetic dress
Liberty and Co. Aesthetic gown c. 1893-1894 (The V&A)

For reproduction Bustle Era women's clothing, please click here.

1880s era girl's dress
1880s Era Girl's dress
(The Henry Ford Collection)

Period photograph of children and their dog-
Note the boy's double breasted suit, knickers, and baseball bat
(Museum of Early Baseball Memorabilia)

Little Lord Faunterloy suit
  A photo dating to a later period shows the continuation of The Little Lord Fauntleroy suit's popularity even into the early 20th century
Children's Clothing:

Children's clothing from this period differed little from the 1870s. Young children of both genders were dressed similiarly in short dresses and frocks until the age of  breeching- or about the age of 5. Boy's then moved into short trousers or knickers while girl's wore dresses fashioned after their mother's.

During the early 1880s, the waistline on children's dresses dropped to below the natural waistline. Dresses were typically cut in the princess style and were either belted at the waist or gathered up in the polonaise style.

Young Lady's gown (private collection)

Skirt length varied from just below the knee to mid calf. Blouses and aprons continued to be popular accessories. Shoes were often dyed to match dresses and patterned or plain stocking were also worn.

Boys over the age 8 continued to wear the four button sporting suits of the first bustle period. Other young men chose to wear the Norfolk suit- a yolk fronted jacket with pleats and a belt. The double breasted jacket with cravat and knickers was also popular.

Norfolk Suit
Children's Aesthetic Dress:
One of the most famous (or infamous) styles of children's clothing from this period is The Little Lord Fauntleroy suit. This suit was based upon the book entitled Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett (pub. 1885). The traditional suit consisted of a black velvet jacket, knickers, and a white blouse with a wide lace collar. This style was popular in America from about 1885-1920.

Another literary figure influential on the children's aesthetic dress movement was writer and illustrator Kate Greenaway. Greenaway's illustrations featured children dressed in the loose- fitting, free flowing styles of the early 19th century. Her illustrations brought back a resurgence of pantalettes, bonnets, and skeleton suits.

Greenaway Illustration from A Apple Pie, 1886

For reproduction Bustle Era children's clothing, please click here.

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These pages are for educational purposes only.  All text copyright Susan Jarrett.  No unauthorized use without permission.
Copyrighted images must be given source credit as has been done on these page. Public domain images do not require source credit.

Page revised January 2013