Victorians and Their Not So Subtle Bustle

One of the things I enjoy doing is dispelling the myth that the Victorians were prudes. Oh, they might try to fool you with their dress rules (an ankle is showing! horrors!), but even there they often failed.

Let’s face it. The bustle was created for one reason, and one reason only.

1860s: The Decade Hats Went To The Birds


Ever since man and woman decided to opt for something more sophisticated than fig leaves, once popular fashions have often caused later generations to raise their eyebrows.  “Men really thought that wearing powered wigs was…well, manly?  Women thought that extending the diameter of their skirt to six feet was a good idea?”

Recent decades has brought bellbottoms, parachute pants, and well…too many oddities to name.

But perhaps the weirdest fashion, the one that really brings to mind,  “What the hell were they thinking?”- is the fad which began in the 1860s.

Yes, this was the year that some Victorian women decided bows and lace and frill were simply not decorative enough for their hats.

And so came the birds.

*In 1864, the London Saturday Review noted that Parisians were wearing exotic butterflies and real hummingbirds in their hair.

In 1875,  Harper’s Bazaar noted,  “The entire bird is used, and is mounted on wires and springs that permit the head and wings to be moved about in the most natural manner.”  They went on to mention that while blackbirds were the most popular, swallows were stuffed, as well as heads of pigeons.

Birds as hat-wear, not surprisingly, was not without its objectors.

*By 1877 Mrs. Haweis (English artist and writer) lamented, “A wired edifice of tulle and velvet, trimmed with a mass of valueless blond (lace), a spray of tinsel, and perhaps a bird’s nest or something else equally bad in taste- e.g. moths, beetles, lizards, mice &c.- can never be a beautiful object.  At present the bonnets and the brains they cover are too often not unfit combinations.”

In 1886, Ornithologist Frank Chapman penned a letter to the editors of Forest and Stream: A Journal of Outdoor Life, Travel, Nature Study, Shooting in which he detailed the number of birds he’d seen upon the women passing him on the street. 

“Editor Forest and Stream:

In view of the fact that the destruction of birds for millin­ery purposes is at present attracting general attention, the appended list of native birds seen on hats worn by ladies in the streets of New York, may be of interest. It is chiefly the result of two late afternoon walks through the uptown shopping districts, and, while very incomplete, still gives an idea of the species destroyed and the relative numbers of each.

Robin, four.
Brown thrush, one.
Bluebird, three.
Blackburnion warbler, one.
Blackpoll warbler, three.
Wilson’s black-capped flycatcher, three.
Scarlet tanager, three.
White-bellied swallow, one.
Bohemian waxwing, one.
Waxwing, twenty-three. 
Great northern shrike, one.
Pine grosbeak, one.
Snow bunting, fifteen.
Tree sparrow, two.
White-throated sparrow, one.
Bobolink, one.
Meadow lurk, two.
Baltimore oriole, nine.
Purple grackle, five.
Bluejay, five.
Swallow-tailed flycatcher, one.
Kingbird, one.
Kingfisher, one.
Pileated woodpecker, one.
Red-headed woodpecker, two.
Golden-winged woodpecker, twenty-one.
Acadian owl, one.
Carolina dove, one.
Pinnated grouse, one.
Ruffed grouse, two.
Quail, sixteen.
Helmet quail, two.
Sanderling, five
Big yellowlegs, one.
Green heron, one.
Virginia rail one.
Laughing gull, one.
Common tern, twenty-one.
Black tern. one.
Grebe, seven.

It is evident that, in proportion to the number of hats seen, the list of birds given is very small; but in most cases mutilation rendered identification impossible.  Thus, while one afternoon 700 hats were counted and on them but 20 birds recognized, 543 were decorated (?) with feathers of some kind. Of the 158 remaining, 72 were worn by young or middle aged ladies and 86 by ladies in mourn­ing or elderly ladies, or—

Percentage of hats with feathers…………………..77
Without feathers……………………………….10
Without feathers, worn by ladies in mourning or elderly ladies……………………………………..12”

*from “Victorian and Edwardian Fashion:  A Photographic Survey” – by Alison Gernsheim

Published in: on January 12, 2011 at 7:24 pm  Comments (41)  
Tags: , , , ,

Of Regency and the Jazz Age Fashion

Yeah!  Now that I have finished the latest revisions on Portraits of the Living: A Ghost Tale, I can finally dip back into I Remember Jacqueline, my novel of murder and reincarnation.

As the two timelines take place primarily in 1820s and 1920s, I thought it would be fun to take a quick, pictorial female fashion tour through those decades.


female fashions:

File:Kiprensky Anna Sagur.jpg

File:Nanette Kaula - Joseph Karl Stieler.jpg

File:Natalia Stepanovna Golitsyna .jpg

File:Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres 010.jpg

File:Ingres Madame Marie Marcotte.jpg

File:Maria Carolina di due Sicilies, duchess de Berry.jpg

File:Stieler strobl 1827.jpg

One hundred years later:

File:Louise Brooks ggbain.32453u.jpg

File:Ailsa Mellon Bruce.jpg

File:Alicejoyce1926full crop.jpg

File:Norma Shearer portrait.jpg

File:A Scena Muda 1921.jpg

pictures include: Louise Brooks, Norma Shearer, Norma Talmadge, Josephine Baker, Clara Bow,  Bebe Daniels, and Zelda Fitzgerald

Deadly Crinoline



Ladies sauntering down halls array  in crinoline. 

This image of the Victorian woman is so memorable, that it is easy to forget that the famous metal-cage was actually reviled by many in its time. 

The crinoline was invented by R.C. Milliet, and introduced  in the summer of 1856.

At first, it was welcomed with great relief.  For by the 1850s, females wore up to fourteen pounds of petticoats in order to achieve  the wide skirts which gave an illusion of a tiny waist.    With this  intolerable weight, alongside  tight-lacing, it is not surprising that women were apt to swoon. 

Not only was the crinoline much lighter in weight, it also gracefully moved  the skirt in alignment with its wearer; swaying  side to side as a lady walked down the street.

The same lightness that made the crinoline much more comfortable,  however, also caused skirts to flare up in the wind, and nearly smack them in the face if they sat down incorrectly.   Heaven-forbid a woman should fall, the cage held her skirt straight up, revealing  all.  

In time, the wideness of skirts grew and grew.  By 1860, dresses measured ten yards around the hem.    With skirts so huge, hostesses discovered a taxing problem.   Before,  three ladies could sit comfortably together on a sofa,  now only one could fit.  What was a hostess to do?    A parlor could only have so many chairs.  Also,  unaware of the edges of their skirts, vases and other bric-a-bracs were constantly being knocked over as women strode across the heavily decorated Victorian rooms.

These fashionable follies were a boon to satirical magazines such as Punch.

Unfortunately, aside from these humorous annoyances, the crinoline proved incredibly dangerous.   Reports circulated of heavy winds knocking women off piers and into the water below, where the steel cages tied to their waist, quickened their drowning.  Hoops got entangled in carriage wheels dragging women to their deaths.  Factory girls were mutilated when their skirts got caught in machinery.  Unsuspecting women knocked over candles,  catching their skirts on fire.  

On December 8, 1863,  approximately 3,000 people died inside a cathedral in Santiago, Chile.  After a gas lamp caught fire,  the highly flammable silks and cottons of the dresses fed the flame.  As the occupants ran towards the doors, they were blocked from reaching the exit by the width of the skirts.

It is perhaps not surprising, that the crinoline fell out of favor for the safer bustle of the 1870s.



“A Splendid Spread”- by George Cruikshank, from the Comic Almanack

Published in: on May 17, 2009 at 1:29 pm  Comments (46)  
Tags: , , ,