The Victorian Era/First Bustle and Natural Form Period 1870-1883

by Susan Jarrett

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).

In 1861, Prince Albert died of typhoid fever leaving England with a Queen in deep mourning. For the next ten years, Queen Victoria lived in seclusion- leaving the country and her empire to the leadership of her Prime Minister. Her solemn nature coupled with her ideals of marriage, family, and social conformity formed the principles and values we now associate with the Victorian Era.

Queen Victoria in mourning
Queen Victoria c. 1868. Privatbesitz Andermatt.

An example of these societal expectations was exhibited in women’s dress. An 1872 Ladies’ Book of Etiquette describes appropriate dress for the following activities or events: receiving visitors, visiting others, travel, walking, going to market, shopping, visiting new brides, mourning, and going out in stormy weather. Each type of dress was distinguished by type of fabric, presence or absence of trim, and suitability for the named activity. Not comprehending and adhering to these rules was the epitome of “bad taste” (FIDM Museum & Galleries,  Nov. 19, 2010).

Traveling dress c. 1870. Augusta Auctions.
Sporting Dress c. 1880-1890. Powerhouse Museum.
Walking dress c.1870-75. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The 1870s saw a great boom in the textile industry. In Europe, the labor intensive hand looms were replaced by more efficient steam driven power looms. The result was a larger supply of textiles at a greatly reduced price. Other new innovations included a cloth cutting machine which could cut 18-24″ thicknesses of fabric at a time.  New finishing techniques such as mercerizing (a chemical process which increases cotton fiber luster, strength, and ability to accept dye) resulted in longer lasting textiles. The use of synthetic dyes (first introduced in 1856) resulted in bold, vibrant colors (some of the first synthetic colors were mauve, magenta, violet, false indigo, brown, black, and green. The latter of which was highly toxic to wearers.)

Hand looming silk. c. 1885. Tower Hamlets Local History Collection
Power Loom. Engraving c. 1862. Wellcome Collection.

These new innovations, coupled with the introduction of the sewing machine in the 1840s, paved the way for the mass consumption of textiles and the introduction of the mail order industry of the 1880s-90s.

1875 Montgomery Ward mail order catalog
Montgomery Ward Catalogue no. 13- Spring and Summer c. 1875. Winterthur Collection.

During this period, The United States was trying desperately to recover from a bloody four year civil war.  Unsuccessful attempts by the Federal government to reconstruct the American South left a legacy of extreme poverty, political corruption, exploitation, and terrorism.

In the Eastern cities, issues with industrialization and immigration resulted in pollution and unsanitary living conditions. In 1870, the first apartment houses were built in New York City to relieve the overpopulation of tenant housing. By the mid 1870s, the Eastern cities were bursting at the seams with the massive influx of new immigrants.

Irish immigrants awaiting passage to America
Harper’s Weekly depiction of Irish immigration. c. 1874. Library of Congress.

In an effort to rebuild the country and recover both the progress of earlier years and the economic losses of the American Civil War, The United States embarked upon reuniting the nation via the railroad.

Rapid railway expansion westward connected secluded geographical outcroppings to the larger cities back East. Railroad construction also provided work for the masses of new immigrant labor flooding the Eastern cities and carried emigrant families to wild, open terrain of the American West.

Traveling West by rail
Traveling West by Rail c. 1869. Library of Congress.

Women’s Clothing:


As more and more women began traveling, the oversized hoops of the Crinoline period became impractical. By the 1870s, the elliptical crinoline had all but disappeared- or rather “evolved” into a bustle (or a long narrow cage that rested at the back of the waist). In England, the bustle was referred to as a “dress improver” and in France, a tournure. However, from 1870-1889, the bustle would continue to evolve into a variety of different shapes and forms.

Cage crinoline c. 1870s. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Cage crinoline c. 1880s. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Bustle c. 1870s. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Other undergarments for women during this period included the chemise, drawers, corset and petticoat. In 1875, the corset changed from the earlier Crinoline silhouette to a longer, sleeker hourglass shape. This “new style” corset, also referred to as the cuirass corset, was worn to create a smooth, controlled line from the upper torso to the hip.

Cuirass corset
Corset advertisement. c. 1880s. Public Domain.

Also as the bustled silhouette narrowed, the use of combinations (a garment that combined both the chemise and drawers into one) replaced the separate chemise and drawers. (It is interesting to note that earlier mention of combinations came in Godey’ Ladies Book in 1858. However, they were not widely adopted at that time.)

Illustration of ladies’ combinations. c. 1878. The New York Public Library.

Gowns of this period typically consisted of two pieces- a bodice and matching skirt. From 1870-1875, bodices were fitted at the torso and ended at either the natural waist or had basque waists– or waists that ended below the natural waistline in either the front or back (or both). Gowns that ended at the natural waistline often had a small peplum at the back (see example below). Sleeves were fitted and either ended at the wrist or the elbow. Sleeves were often finished with cuffs, flounces, pleats, or trim. Square, rounded, and V-shaped necklines were popular.

Gown of synthetic green dye.
Silk gown of new synthetic green dye, c. 1870. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Elaborate 1870s gown with peplum
Elaborately trimmed silk gown with bodice peplum c. 1873. Wien Museum

Skirts of this period had additional fabric at the back that was draped over the bustle. Some skirts were looped up or gathered over the bustle- known as the polonaise style. Other skirts extended a swag of fabric over the front of the skirt giving the illusion of an apron.

1874 gown with apron
Silk Gauze gown with front apron c. 1874. Fashion Museum Bath.

The princess gown was also popular. This style of gown was cut from a single piece of fabric (from shoulder to hem without a waist seam) and used a series of darts to shape the fabric to the desired silhouette. (It is interesting to note that the princess gown appeared as early as the 1860s and is credited to the designer Charles Worth.)

Princess line silk & cotton gown c. 1870-1880. Museum of Decorative Arts- Prague.

Other two piece garments consisted of the skirt and blouse combination. Blouses were typically loosely fitted and belted at the waistline. They were worn with a contrasting skirt. This mode of dress was worn for less formal occasions (at home) and by the working class. Blouses and skirts were often available via mail order.


For a very brief period of time, a slender, fitted silhouette emerged. This period is commonly referred to as Natural Form. However the title “natural form” is a bit misleading. During this period, the circumference of the skirt narrowed and the bustle all but disappeared. Skirt fullness dropped to below the hips and sometimes employed internal ties to hold the drapery close to the legs. Heavily trimmed skirts placed the weight of the gown on the lower half of the body.

Natural form was not a long lasting fashion trend and by the end of 1883, the bustle had again regained its popularity. However, many elements from this trend- including the longer, tightly fitted corset, would remain prominent well into the 20th century.

Natural form gown
Reception gown. c. 1880. Boston Museum of Fine Art.

By the mid 1880s, the cuirass bodice was en vogue. The term cuirass is an ancient word used to describe men’s body armor. Likewise, the cuirass bodice of the first bustle period fit closely against the corseted torso and was reinforced with multiple strips of metal boning.

Cuirass bodice gown
Wedding gown with cuirass bodice c. 1879. The V&A.

Printed cotton gown with cuirass bodice and polonaise skirt. c. 1883. The V&A.

Evening Wear:
Thanks to the home sewing machine and advancements in the textile industry, clothing could now be made quickly and less expensively than in prior periods. Mass produced trims, which had once been too costly for the average lady to afford, were now available en masse. Thus dresses of this period were often lavishly trimmed.

Cuirass bodice evening gown
Cuirass bodice evening gown c.1876-78. The V&A.

Evening gowns from this period were of the same silhouette as gowns worn for daytime. Oftentimes, women had two bodices for the same skirt- one for day wear and one for evening wear. Necklines for evening wear were less conservative, highly trimmed, and had shorter sleeve styles. Sleeveless bodices were popular. Throughout this period, skirts with trains were worn for both day and evening wear.

1870s evening gown
Gown for a ball c. late 1870s. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Children’s Clothing:

Boy’s tunic c. 1881. The Philidelphia Museum of Art.

The 1870s saw much travel for children as well as adults. In fact, train travel was considered so safe, children often traveled alone.

Photograph of young boy dressed for traveling. c. 1870s.

Queen Victoria’s love for all things Scottish brought kilts, tartans, and Glengarry caps into mainstream children’s attire.

Boy’s Tartan Tunic. c. 1850-1880. Augusta Auctions.
Boy's kilted suit
Boy’s kilted suit. c. 1870s. Vintage Textile.
Girl's tartan dress
Girl’s tartan jacket and skirt c. 1870s. Wayne State University.

After the age of five, boys no longer wore the genderless dresses, smocks, and skirts of toddler hood. The Eton suit and tunic suits of earlier periods as well as the sailor suits were popular. Short trousers and knickers with shirts and smocks were worn as well.

King George V
King George V of England dressed in sailor shirt and trousers. c. 1870. Library of Congress.

Boys over the age 8 wore sporting suits– a four piece ensemble consisting of a four-button jacket, trousers (full length for adolescents), a shirt, and a contrasting vest.

Boy’s woolen sporting jacket and vest c. 1870-74. FIDM.

Girls’ fashions (after the age of 5) followed the same silhouette as women’s fashions- only they were shorter in length. The Princess gown was very a popular style for girls of this period. The use of combinations and mass produced stockings replaced girl’s pantalettes.

Photograph of girl of about 10 or 11 years. c. 1870s.
Girl's 1870s dress
Girl’s printed cotton dress. c. 1870. Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Blouses were worn under girls’ dresses and a variety of aprons were worn over them. In many cases, aprons served as both a decorative accessory as well as a way to protect the garments underneath. Popular materials for aprons included gingham, muslin, and linen. Popular apron trims included hand- made lace, bands of contrasting fabric or tucking and embroidery.

Girl's bustle apron
Pattern for your girl’s apron. c. 1877. The New York Public Library.
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