Textile Tuesday: Bustle and Bust Improver

bust inhancer detail
Bustle, United States of America, 1887, wire, 10 x 31 x 3 in. Bust Improver, United States of America, 1890-1910, silk and cotton, 5 x 11 x 2 in.

Caitlyn Beczkiewicz is a student in the School of Human Ecology, studying Textiles and Fashion Design.

Bustle from the textile collectionI have been researching how women’s fashion relates to sexism throughout history, especially in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century. I selected two pieces from the HLATC collection: one was a bustle (pictured right) from the United States in 1887, and the other was a bust improver (featured image) from the United States between 1890-1910. These pieces struck me as significant in thinking about the relationship between nineteenth-century dress and the image of the female body.

Bustle and Bust ImproverA bustle is a belt with a wire frame to add fullness to a skirt draped over the structure. The bustle in the HLATC was a much smaller item than I had thought it would be. In the early nineteenth century, it was trendy to have giant bustles with extravagant embellishments on the draped fabric, placing focus on the exaggerated shape of the back side. However, in the later nineteenth century, fashion changed to emphasize the bust, with less of an emphasis on the back side. I found Valerie Steele’s book Fashion and Eroticism: Ideals of Feminine Beauty from the Victorian Era to the Jazz Age very helpful in charting these changes to the ideal female form over time. Since both the bustle and bust improver in our collection are from around the same time period, it makes sense that the bustle is smaller, while the bust improvers were designed to enhance the chest.

enhancer from the textile collectionSeeing both of pieces in person was fascinating. I am not exactly sure how the bust enhancer was worn, but it was also smaller than I expected it to be, leading me to wonder about the standard size of the female frame in this period, and the target age for this item. This artifact is covered in beautiful frilly lace, which is not surprising because undergarments started becoming more elegant during this time period, and many things were made with lace, bows, and other beautiful and feminine fabrics. One side is covered with silk lace, while the other side is just plain cotton. It seems like it would not be comfortable to wear, however, women during this time wore a lot of uncomfortable garments to fit the standard of fashion and body ideals, so maybe it did not matter if it was comfortable or not. The silk lace could also symbolize wealth and maybe only women with money could afford silk lace bust improvers.

As a woman, I’ve always been interested in topics of sexism, and learning and researching sexism in fashion has opened up a different view than I have had before. Seeing actual pieces from this time period helped me understand how the body was manipulated to achieve a fashionable form. Both of these pieces are fascinating and help tell the story of nineteenth-century fashion and how it was affected by standards of beauty and gender roles. More information on bustle. More information on bust improver.  

#TextileTuesday is a yearlong series celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection.

HLATC 50th anniversary logo

In 2019, the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Human Ecology launched a yearlong anniversary celebration of the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection. Over the past half century, the collection has grown from an original 4,000-piece gift to more than 13,000 objects that have inspired and informed thousands of students, researchers, historians, and textile aficionados. The 50-year celebration began on January 27, 2019, with the opening of new Lynn Mecklenburg Textile Gallery, a space dedicated to year-round displays of the collections. Activities continue into 2019 with a calendar of public exhibitions, symposia, lectures, and public workshops.

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