The Trouble With Bustles

I may have first become aware of the relationship between fashion and gender while watching Disney’s Pecos Bill cartoon*. Bill’s true love, Slue-Foot Sue, is real dagguereotype girlfriend, with bow lips and a long red braid. She rides a catfish instead of a horse and enjoys life as a freewheeling wild-west adventurer until she falls in love and decides to settle down.

Sue takes a break from steer-ropin' to powder her nose.

Sue's wedding dress is buttercup-yellow, topped off with a veil on her big white stetson. A fine new bustle props up the whole thing. While the result is quite fetching, Sue’s great fashion sense leads to her demise. Her beloved’s horse, Widowmaker, is a jealous nag who bucks Sue and her bouncy bustle up into the heavens. Sue spends eternity on the moon, and Bill pines for her every night as he gazes up at the sky.

As a kid, I was puzzled and intrigued by this. What was this bizarre thing Sue strapped to her ass, anyway?  Even the most ridiculous contemporary fashion is a taupe turtleneck by comparison. These were CAGES, made of metal, bone or wood, strapped around the wearer’s waist for the sole purpose of making the booty look bigger (and by extension, the waist smaller). According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, they were also thought to “stabilize women’s frail and weak forms” (Which is ironic, because I imagine these things weighed the wearer down by a few pounds).

Worn from the late 1860’s to the late 1890’s, bustles were central to Victorian-era fashion. Their shape changed in the later 19th Century, evolving from a round bell shape to become flatter in front and more prominent in the rear--the wild-west saloon girl look.

Victorian culture is of course synonymous with cultural repression, and arguably the female form has never been more fully contorted and exaggerated in mainstream culture. Wikipedia even compares the bustle’s profile to the famous posterior of the “Hottentot Venus”, Saartje Baartman, a South African native who was displayed throughout Europe in the 19th Century.

Despite the obviously horrifying inferences one can draw here about mobility and comfort and the literally “caged” woman (second wave feminism, yawn dullsville but we’re probably due for a refresher…anyway), they look AMAZING. I’m sorry. You really only need one dress when it’s this one:

Sporting Dress c.1885, collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

BUT! A Word of Caution: When bustles get too big, the wearer looks a bit like they’re in a horse costume. In fact, maybe that’s what pissed Widowmaker off so much. One hopes it’s more plausible than interspecies romantic jealousy (which gives me the heebie-jeebies).

*When I say this, I mean i literally may not have been 100% clear on “boys where x, girls wear y” prior to this. My mom did a great job of degendering my wardrobe before age 6 via corduroy overalls and striped t-shirts.