The bustle was as much a fashion statement for women in the Victorian era as the top hat was for men, and fashions spread from Paris and London all over the world, including to the Old West of the United States.
The bustle evolved from the crinoline, which at its most typical was a series of concentric steel hoops which supported the fabric of a dress from waist to feet. It had been a liberating innovation because before that, women’s legs were encumbered by heavy folds of material which they needed to learn how to walk in. The crinoline allowed their legs free movement under their skirts.
Then dresses began to become heavier round the back with fabric draped round there. The crinoline was made smaller but it had an additional steel frame attached to the waist at the back to support the extra weight of material. As an alternative to the frame, layers of flounced horsehair could be worn over the crinoline to give the characteristic lift at the rear.
In the mid 1870’s a slimmer silhouette came in, temporarily ousting the bustle. It wasn’t a fashion for matrons; only sylph-like figures looked good in it so its days were automatically numbered. It was also very bad news for any girl of an active bent because it limited the length of the stride to six inches, which must often have led to the skirts being pulled up the leg in sheer frustration.
After that, in 1883 or as long after as it took for fashion magazines to percolate, the bustle returned with a vengeance. It now became so exaggerated that it looked like a woman had a shelf sticking out behind her. It was remarked that there could have been another pair of legs under the skirt, making women resemble horses or, more properly, centaurs. A cartoon of the time shows a snail dressed as a woman with its shell forming the bustle. After that, perhaps under the weight of its sheer ridiculousness, the bustle got smaller again until gradually dress that inhibited movement was no longer accepted.
The general idea of the bustle, fashion trends apart, was to completely conceal the outline of a woman’s buttocks and to cover the entire length of her legs down to the tops of her shoes. At the same time, by means of deceiving the eye with regard to proportions, it had the effect of making a woman’s waist appear smaller, and a small waist was prized above rubies by the Victorians.
There was a great deal of hypocrisy surrounding dress in this era. Modesty was applied out of all proportion to the lower half of the body while evening dresses had what we would consider indecently low décolletage. Sexual flirting was perfectly possible using the upper half of the body; the language of fans bears witness to this.
Attitudes, too, were prudish. There were numerous prostitutes and plenty of published porn to satisfy gentlemen, and yet women were viewed not only as genteel and submissive, but also ultimately of very limited competence. It was quite a feat for a girl to challenge these prejudices.