The Victorian Era/Second Bustle Period and Aesthetic Dress 1883-1890

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).

The philosophies of Romanticism (1820-1850) never really disappeared in the decades following 1850 and continued to influence many within the arts communities. In the late 1870s, Romantic connection with the past reemerged as something quite different- the Aesthetic Movement. The Aesthetic Movement of the late 19th century was a break from the heavily themed artistic norms of the period and proposed instead that art simply be created for art’s sake. James McNeil Whistler’s painting exemplify both the fashions and the artistic style of the Aesthetic Movement.

Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink by James McNeil Whistler. c. 1871-74. The Frick Collection.

By the 1880s, more and more of the population became frustrated with the widespread corruption and social injustices brought forth by the rigidity of Victorianism. Soon calls for reform began to surface. Women spoke out against what they deemed the “ridiculousness of modern fashion.” The words of author Mary Haweis exemplify the universal cry of the Aesthetic Dress movement:
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.” The Art of Dress1879.

Another influential proponent of the Aesthetic Dress movement was author Oscar Wilde. In 1888, he writes:
……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.” –The Woman’s Dress, 1888-1890.

Oscar Wilde
Author Oscar Wilde c. 1882

Aesthetic dress was the antithesis of modern fashion. It rejected the brightly colored, lavishly trimmed, tightly corseted bodices of the first and second bustle periods. Instead, aesthetic dress boasted free-flowing, un-corseted gowns, completely unaided by “dress improvers” such as bustles, heavily boned bodies, and layers of petticoats. If the motto of Aesthetic artists was “art for art’s sake,” then the motto of Aesthetic dress was “beauty is simplicity and freedom.”

Detail of A Private View at the Royal Academy by William Powell Frith. c. 1883. Private Collection.

Women’s Fashion:

Aesthetic dress of the late 19th century is 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 creative circles, aesthetic dress also spilled into mainstream fashion. Aesthetic 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.

Liberty of London Tea Gown with Watteau back. c. 1897. Kerry Taylor Auctions.

Liberty and Co. Aesthetic gown c. 1893-1894. The V&A

More traditional minded ladies opted to keep within the confines of the dress philosophies of the earlier Victorian periods. Mainstream fashionistas of the second bustle period wore a variety of fashionable dress improvers, tournures, and padded undergarments to reshape their bodies into the idealized silhouette of the period.

House of Worth Afternoon Dress. c. 1888. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In 1881, couture designer Charles Worth redefined the 1870s era “lobster tail” bustle and reshaped it into a smaller rounded half dome. The bustle of the mid-late 1880s fit closer to the body, was shorter, and was very geometric in shape. By the mid 1880s, the bustle was primarily made of steel caging. In France was referred to as the crinolette as its engineering was similar to the full cage crinolines of the 1860s.

Collection of 1880s era bustles. 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 first bustle period, the use of combinations as the first layer of under garments continued in popularity.

mid 1880s corset
Mid 1880s corset. FIT.

As in the first bustle period, two piece bodice and skirt combinations were popular. Many mid-late 1880s era gowns typically had high, fitted collars. Oftentimes a small tucker or chemisette was worn underneath. Sleeves set higher into the armhole than in the first bustle period and were generally close fitting and long. Skirts continued to be excessively trimmed but rarely had train. Hemlines often ended near the ankle. Exceptions included evening wear. Bodices for evening had a variety of sleeve styles and were lavishly trimmed. Gowns with short sleeves (or no sleeves) were often worn with elbow length silk gloves.

1880s bustle gown
Day dress. c. 1887. Manchester Art Gallery.
1880s Bustle gown
Printed cotton dress. c. 1885. The V&A.

A long lasting fashion trend born of the dress reform movement was the Cycling costume. In 1876, the modern bicycle (not to be confused with the penny-farthing) 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!

The Rover ‘safety’ bicycle, c. 1885. Science & Society Picture Library

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. 

1880s tennis dress
Striped cotton tennis dress. c. 1884-86. Manchester Art Gallery.

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. Soon cycling suits complete with matching jackets and spats were all the rage!

1890s cycling suit
Brightly colored Cycling Suit, c. 1890s. FIDM Museum

Children’s Fashion:

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.

1880-1910 boys
Boys wearing popular fashions of the late 19th century. BBC.

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.

Girl’s dress. c. late 1880s. The Henry Ford 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.

Girl's dressy bustle gown
Girl’s Bodice and Skirt c. 1883. Philidelphia Museum of Art.

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. 

Boy’s Norfolk Suit c. 1890. Wayne State University.

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 (c. 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.

Little Lord Faunterloys
Three little gents looking smashing in their Little Lord Fauntleroy suits. c. 1880s. Pinterest.

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 earlier Regency Era. Her illustrations sparked a resurgence of pantalettes, bonnets, and skeleton suits in children’s late 19th century wardrobes.

Kate Greenaway Illustration from A Apple Pie c.1886
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