Who Were They?

Lost and forgotten photos from the past

In my other life (the one outside the photo/cooking/mother realm), I love to play dress up, and in particular I love the Victorian era. I have numerous 1860s dresses, Frontier outfits and 1890s dresses, but the one garment I have not tackled yet is the bustle dress. Partly because none of my friends have done it yet, but also partly because the bustle itself is rather daunting. Being as I like to make my own clothing, I would have to make a bustle, and even though I have made my own corset (experienced sewists only please!) I am intimidated by the wire frames and ties that make up this undergarment that was worn by millions of Western women at the height of the fashion in the 1880s.

A bustle is made of white cotton and can be a padded pillow-like item, or a wire framed petticoat that sticks out from the posterior. I read a little note that my grandmother jotted down at some point, allegedly from a conversation between her brother and sister. Her brother said “why would anyone want to pay twenty-five cents for a hump on her backside?” Regardless of the fact that my distant relative did not understand it, women did wear these fashions. They were considered extremely provocative as they created a little sway in the hips when viewed from behind. This coming from the prim Victorians is akin to sexting!

The question always comes to mind “how do you sit in a bustle dress?” Well, whether it was a padded pillow bustle or a wire frame bustle, there wasn’t a solid object behind the woman, and so she was able to plant her bottom on a chair or settee. However, also because there was a pillow or wire frame behind her, women tended to perch on the edges of their chairs rather than sink back into them. Our subject shown above appears to be leaning to one side of her body, transferring her weight over to her right leg. Perhaps it was a device of the photographer to make her look more natural, but having worn some of these voluminous Victorian style garments, I would say she is just trying to be comfortable.

I welcome comments from my historical clothing enthusiast friends…please tell us, how do you sit in a bustle dress?

Today’s photo is courtesy of Ray Jackson and was photographed by William Wollensak at 450 National Ave., Milwaukee. We know by the clothing that this photo was made in the 1880s. Mr. W. Wollensak was nominated for President of the Photographers Association of Wisconsin in 1898, having previously served on the Press Committee. Interestingly, there was a company that made photographic lenses named Wollensak Optical Company which sponsored the Wollensak Cup – a photographic trophy – in at least the 1910s, and the Photographers Association of Wisconsin was recorded as one of the conventions participating in the competition. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

16 thoughts on “How do you sit in a bustle dress?

  1. Claudia says:

    Very, very carefully I would say. Perhaps they only wore them outside for formal occasions.


  2. In wouldn’t even want to try..I would be tempted to just lift it up and sit down underneath it all..LOL:)


  3. Mrs Marvel says:

    My friend told me that she lifts the back up about three inches and then perches on the edge of the chair!


  4. IntenseGuy says:

    I would say “Its nice being a guy sometimes!” :)


  5. With hoops you need to lift the back or the whole front of the dress will flip up. With a bustle (at least the one I have) it just collapses as you sit. Depending on the width of the seat and the bustle you may or may not need to perch. I have found any perching I have done has had more to do with the corset than the hoops or bustles! You can not slouch in a corset and it can be uncomfortable to sit ram rod straight all the way back in softer chairs.


  6. Vanessa says:

    Hi. I’m actually doing historical research on William Wollensak, and i would like to know if you have more information about him. It would help me a lot if you could tell me where you found these pictures and i’d be extremely greatful.
    Thank you.


    1. Mrs Marvel says:

      This photo was actually provided by a site reader and I believe he said he got it on eBay. I certainly just googled the name to get the bit of into I have. I’m sorry that I don’t have more info for you. I recommend Langdon Road and the Cabinet Card Gallery for additional possible info. Both have extensive photo libraries.


      1. Vanessa says:

        Thank you for your time Mrs. Marvel, and i appreciate what you offered. I will take a quick look and hopefully i do fond what i need.
        Thank you.


  7. Chris says:

    I have a special chair that was made around 1869. It was designed to allow you to lift the bustle and lean against it. The chair it’s self has a forward sloped seat so it takes the weight of the dress off. You can’t just sit on it. It’s designed for standing against it and “Taking a load off”.


    1. Mrs Marvel says:

      That is fascinating, but I suppose it makes sense – French doors were developed for the wide panniers popular during the 18th century. Shape the environment to suit the fashions. :-) Thank you for your insight!


  8. anyjazz says:

    I was told some time back (sorry the source escapes me now) that the one armed chairs seen so often in studio portraits of that era were designed for the purpose of accommodating the bustle.


  9. Liutgard says:

    A number of the wire ones were collapsible- they would just fold up, rather like the roof on a convertible. And they were lighter than the stuffed ones.


  10. Phorcys says:

    Having worn recreation bustle dresses it depends on the type of bustle but a lot were collapsible like a lobster tail. When I have to sit I fold my bustle up and it sits against my lower back.


  11. Phorcys says:

    Looking at the picture more it makes me think she may be leaning on her corset. If you have tight lacing and have to sit straight I found I would rest my weight on my corset to relive the stress.


  12. Thank you for this! I’ll be sharing a link to your article in an upcoming article of mine, which features a Wollensak photograph from the 1880s or 90s.


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