Ryerson Fashion Research Collection

Opening the closet door to a Canadian fashion archive


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A Weston & Wells Reversible Plated Bustle

by Christine Gow

Much like the clothes that parade down the catwalks of the world’s fashion capitals, the fashionable female body is also subject to the cyclical whims of taste. When we manage to attain the unattainable—that year’s bump, lump, or lack thereof du jour—we tire of it and move on. Take, for example, the statuesque supermodels of the late 80s, who gave way to heroin chic’s Kate Moss in 1993; she, in turn, conceded the crown to a gravity-defying Gisele Bündchen at the end of that decade. While boy-slim silhouettes still dominate the pages of high fashion magazines in 2017, pop culture has permeated the arena of health and beauty and overinflated boobs and butts provide a shapely foil to the tiny waists of a million social media feeds.

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Reversible Player Bustle c.1885

It is with this in mind that I ask Ingrid Mida, curator of the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection and author of The Dress Detective, to show me the selection of bustles in her care. The idea of temporarily exaggerating one’s shape with a strap-on 3D form appeals, having once had a costly brush with dermatological fillers (lips, $1600, looked like a platypus for six months). “Bustles,” Ingrid replies, “are so fun. We have a whole variety of them—in different materials, shapes etc. I will bring out the whole box.” She is right—the collection hosts a plethora of styles from the bustle’s hey day in the 1870s and 80s. Here, I must note, that bustles were conceived as a way to support the elaborate and heavy draping and embellishments of the dresses of the time, not as a way to give the impression of a larger-than-average bum. In Victorian Fashions & Costumes from Harper’s Bazar: 1867-1898, Stella Blum explains that “the knees had been freed by this time, and the trains for day disappeared for easier walking, but the weight of these costumes and the structures needed to support the huge rear extension added little to increase mobility. Many of the fabrics were upholstery like in quality, made heavier by the profuse use of beading, fringes, braids and furs” (1974). When viewed from the side as was intended this rear profile looked like the backend of a horse.

Blum also describes how our perpetual ennui is the primary catalyst of change in fashion, stating how “it often manifests itself as a dissatisfaction with the original shape of the body and seeks expression in a wide variety of anatomical constrictions and distensions.” From her vantage point in the 1970s, she felt that “of these deviations from the natural, none is so difficult for the modern eye to justify in terms of esthetics, comfort or practicality as the form considered fashionable in the mid-1880s.”  Ms. Blum clearly did not anticipate the impact Kim Kardashian or Nicki Minaj would have on the desired female form in the new millennium at the time of her writing.

The mid-1880s is known as the high bustle period, as in the 1870s a much lower profile was in fashion (Peteu and Gray 2008). Harold Koda, curator of The Met’s Extreme Beauty: The Body Transformed exhibition in 2001, explains how “the silhouette of the 1880s was created with corsetry and “dress improvers” such as (the) wire-mesh bustle. Structured foundation garments exaggerated the sexually-dimorphic curves of the female body.” What was then achieved with wire mesh is now the domain of gym squats and implants, but Koda points out that the shape women sought with the bustle was nothing new, even then: it was a “deliberate revival of the “bum rolls” and “half-farthingales” of the Baroque era. The height of this style peaked in 1887 and 1888 and “can be explained by the competition between Thomas P. Taylor and Henry O. Canfield (both of Bridgeport, Connecticut) to invent a viable folding bustle” (Peteu and Gray 2008).

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Label on bustle FRC2013.99.001

The bustle I find the most interesting within Ryerson’s collection is precisely this type, though not because of the wire-mesh, double croissant-like shape, or intriguing combination of straps and laces. This one is the only one with any sort of maker’s mark. “THE REVERSIBLE PLATED BUSTLE”, proclaims the neat red print on the cotton twill tape used to secure the wire form to the wearer, the vestiges of a patent number barely visible in faded ink below. “MADE ONLY BY THE WESTON & WELLS MANUFACTURING CO.” in Philadelphia, P.A., by “AN AMERICAN BRAIDED WIRE CO.”, this bustle speaks of American ingenuity in a newly industrial world, and thus, in a sense, of the American dream. I love the perky sense of optimism this fashion invention projects. Dated to circa 1885, the bustle’s original owner is unknown, having come to Ryerson through the vast Cleaver-Suddon donation, a collection of artifacts amassed by fine arts librarian Alan Suddon and acquired in 2001 by Professor Emeritus Katherine Cleaver on his passing.

As you can well imagine, a rigid metal structure strapped to your behind would make sitting rather awkward, and innovations in bustle making stemmed from inventors looking to solve this problem. Koda explains that these were normally “attached only by a waistband, so that they could shift or lift when the wearer sat. Frequently, they were collapsible, but even in those cases, a woman was required to shift her bustle to the side and perch on the edge of her seat”. It seems ironic that at this time women began to actively participate in sports, even daring to try such masculine pursuits as yachting and fencing. It mattered little what a woman was doing; in order to remain fashionable she still had to wear a corset and bustle—even when running around a tennis court (Blum 1974). This sport, I posit, could well have been the purpose of my ‘reversible plated bustle’, though a little further research tells me that her manufacturer was a purveyor of “torsion braided wire springs for carriage cushions and backs” (Fitz-Gerald 1896).

Perhaps Weston & Wells were only concerned with the comfort of a lady’s backside while seated; of the bustles patented between 1887 and 1888, “when the most extreme protruding bustles were in fashion, 44% were for folding bustles to aid in sitting.” Innovation in this area required engineering adeptness, as these contraptions needed to be robust enough to offer significant support, fold when the lady sat, and spring back into shape when she rose. In an 1888 bustle patent, inventor Alice White described the extreme “mortification of the wearer” should her bustle tangle and not regain its intended shape (Peteu and Gray 2008). Though bustle patents outnumber those of other shaping garments (there were 261 between 1846 and 1920, versus 205 hoop patents in the same period), it is only after 1890 that patent records show a major turn in attention to skirts designed for sports and professional activities. “Shaping devices followed the generally accepted timeline for fashionable silhouettes, indicating market demand as a patent incentive” (Peteu and Gray 2008).

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Did the wearer of this bustle use it in her attempts to chase a ball around a clay court from the confines of a corset and gown? If she did, this lightweight add-on would have been the least of her worries. The light soiling on the straps suggests excessive perspiration did not manage to escape her corset and petticoat, which could mean the sport was played at a more leisurely pace, or that the corset had formidable powers of absorption (the torn loop where the bustle would attach to the corset and missing stainless cap at the end of one lace indicate that perhaps she did engage in athletic pursuits of some kind). A certain level of plainness was mercifully acceptable in sporting ensembles at this time, but it could well have been that this lady’s greatest concern was not how many points she could win but simply how best to sit. Although extreme rear profiles were only favored for a short while within the two decades of the bustle’s prime, the undergarment itself would remain fashionable in much subtler incarnations into the next century. Surprisingly, Peteu and Gray found that four patents were filed between 1921 and 2007, indicating there exists those who still champion its cause. In any case, it is either the masterful engineering or the short time this bustle was on trend that accounts for its relatively well-kept condition.

American anthropologist Igor Kopytoff writes: “commodities must be not only produced materially as things, but also culturally marked as being a certain kind of thing. Out of the total range of things available in a society, only some of them are considered appropriate for marking as commodities. Moreover, the same thing may be treated as a commodity at one time and not at another. And finally, the same thing may, at the same time, be seen as a commodity by one person and something else by another.”

From valued undergarment to artifact—practically overnight, in the grand scheme of things—I am thankful that when millions of these bustles were relegated to the scrap heap in 1889 or 90, a lady somewhere tucked this particular one into the farthest reaches of her closet, perhaps hoping that it would one day again come back into fashion.

Works Cited

Blum, Stella. 1974. Victorian Fashions and Costumes from Harper’s Bazaar, 1867-1898. Dover Publications.

Fitz-Gerald, William N. The Automotive Manufacturer. Vol. 37. New York City, N.Y.: Trade News Publishing Co., 1896.

Koda, Harold. Extreme Beauty: the Body Transformed (The Costume Institute, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, December 6, 2001 – March 17, 2002). New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001.

Kopytoff, I. 1986. “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process.” The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective.

Mida, Ingrid, and Alexandra Kim. 2015. The Dress Detective: A practical guide to Object-based research in Fashion. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Peteu, M. C., and S. Helvenston Gray. 2008. “Clothing Invention: Improving the Functionality of Women’s Skirts, 1846-1920.” Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 27 (1): 45–61.

Sloan, Will. “A Stitch from Time” Ryerson University. December 12, 2014. Accessed March 11, 2017. http://www.ryerson.ca/news/news/General_Public/20141212-a-stitch-from- time/.

Christine Gow is an MA Fashion candidate and communications professional, researching how the fashion industry could actively subvert dominant cultural narratives surrounding female consumers over the age of 40 and this market’s digital engagement within omni-channel fashion retail.

This blog post was part of an object-based research assignment for MA Theory II and has been edited by Collection Co-ordinator Ingrid Mida. 


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A Peek inside a Pumpkin Yellow Corset

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Corset, c.1900. Cotton, Metal, Ryerson (FRC 2013.05.001) Photo by Millie Yates

This under bust corset (FRC 2013.05.001), dated 1900, is made of a rich pumpkin coloured woven jacquard cotton with a motif of staggered flower buds and stems (Note 1). The corset is lavishly trimmed with lace threaded with a similar yellow toned satin ribbon along the busk, and top and bottom edges. The centre front closes with metal slot and studs that are unmarked. The spoon busk measures 12 ¾ inches, with hand-stitching visible at the openings for surrounding each of the slots of the busk.  The closed waist measures 23 inches, and there is notable discolouration along the panels along the waistline of the corset, as well as signs of wear including small stains and discolouration. Looking closely, there appears to have been four separate remnants of stitching resembling the shape of a dart, located respectively on each side of the front and back of the corset.  There are 12 pairs of metal eyelets on the back to lace the corset; however the original laces are not present. The corset is lightly boned with 5 flexible bones placed directly beside each other, on each side of the corset, as well as one bone on either side of the eyelets at the back.  One of the bones located on the back pokes out of the casing at revealing what appears to be ¼ inch flat white metal bone. The garment appears to have been sewn by machine; however the stitching is noticeably lacking fluidity and accuracy.

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Back view corset, Ryerson (FRC 2013.05.001) Photo by Millie Yates

Examining the inside of the corset, the top and bottom edges are trimmed in cotton bias tape in a darker shade of pumpkin yellow. The five bones on each side of the corset are clearly visible within their white cotton casings. The busk has been enclosed leaving the raw edge of the fabric visible, and closed with large herringbone like stitch along the length of the busk. The seaming is quite visible and the seam allowance along the waistline, and centre front and back have been left raw, and have shredded over the years. Upon close inspection there are remnants of vibrant pink stitching concentrated along the waistline. Given the placement it could be surmised that the raw edges of seaming along the waist could have been enclosed by lining along the waistline at some point.

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Inside view, Ryerson (FRC 2013.05.001) Photo by Ingrid Mida

 

This corset is a bit of a conundrum. The vibrant colour and trimmings, as well as light boning and size would suggest that this is more of a fashion corset for a smaller women; however the use of the spoon busk is usually for the more practical purpose of containing a larger stomach. Furthermore given the construction of the corset with flexible boning only being used at the sides, this corset was probably intended more for looks rather than to greatly reduce one’s waist; as it would only lightly shape and support the figure. The weight and quality of fabric do not seem to be appropriate for the early 1900s, as it is a lightweight cotton jacquard fabric in a very vibrant yellow (Note 2). Nor does use of the spoon busk, or decoration of it, which does not seem to be typical of the period (Note 2).  Additionally the decorative outside of the corset would infer that the garment was more of a fashion item, made for someone who could afford to have a more frivolously coloured item of clothing; in contradiction there is the odd lack of finishing on the inside of the garment, as well as in the accuracy of the stitching.

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Side view corset, Ryerson (FRC 2013.05.001) Photo by Millie Yates

 

 

The vibrant pink stitching remnants may indicate that there once was a lining of that colour; however the remaining raw edges still seem very odd for a corset from the early 20th century. As for the indications of the four dart-like stitch remnants, this again is extremely odd as darts are not a normal feature in corsets. This would suggest that they would have been added later to accommodate a smaller waist, and then taken out later to expand it again.

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Detail inside corset (FRC 2013.05.001) Photo by Ingrid Mida

Typically corsets from the early 1900s are longer lined, and have a more curvaceous silhouette with the S bend shape. This is not at all consistent with the style of this corset; though it could be argued that the surface embellishment is somewhat similar. While there were shorter under bust corsets, more similar to the shape of this corset, there are very distinct differences.

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Corset, c.1907, French, The Metropolitain Museum of Art (C145.68.174)

Under bust corsets from the turn of the century have far more boning, and are constructed in less vibrant coloured but lavish fabrics like silk,  with more detail, and do not employ the use of a spoon busk, but a straight busk. They can however be trimmed with decoration, but the busk is not typically decorated.  This is clearly illustrated in contrast between the corset in question, and this plain white cotton corset, ca. 1900 (C.I.41.103.4) from the Met, which is similarly cut, but far more heavily boned. It also closes with a straight busk, and has far less surface decoration in contrast to the highly decorated spoon busk of the pumpkin yellow corset.

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Corset, ca.1900, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I41.103.4)

There were also ribbon corsets at this time, like this cream ribbon corset from Ryerson (FRC 2014.07.228) which have only light boning at the sides, very similar to this corset in number and placement-all being concentrated beside one another at the sides.  The fabric used in this ribbon corset is also far more expensive, being entirely silk,. Though the fabric is on the more decorative side, the fabric is still a plain weave, not patterned. Finally, the ribbon corset does not have similar trimmings, but instead a single ribbon decoration at the top of the busk, which is straight not a spoon shaped.

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Ribbon Corset, c.1900, R&G No.65, Ryerson (FRC 2014.07.228) Photo by Millie Yates

None of the other early 20th century corsets were constructed from comparable textiles – neither in composition, weave or colour. Nor do any of the corsets feature decorated busks, or even just spoon busks; nor do they have separate panels cut along the waistline. Given the inconsistencies when compared to various other corsets from the early 1900s, there is a good chance that this pumpkin cotton corset is a vintage theatre costume corset, taking inspiration from the style of early 1900s corsets.

This corset seems to be a hybrid of different corset styles which would coincide with it being a theatre costume corset, as costume designers do not always make period accurate costumes, but are looking more for a certain aesthetic. This would also account for the vibrant colour of the fabric, and stitching, as well as the amount of surface decoration. Additionally the peculiar lack of finishing on the inside would makes sense as well, as  theatre costumes are often left unfinished on the inside as they are not visible to the audience, as well as for ease of making alterations. This could also explain the dart like shapes still visible, as it could have been altered for a production. Finally the amount of wear it seems to have could be explained by the use it would have gone through being a costume; but also suggested that it is a vintage item.

As there was no provenance attached to the artifact upon acquisition, there is no way to know with certainty the origins of this undergarment. However, this artifact offers an interesting peek into 20th century corsetry and the complex nature of dress artifacts.

 

Notes

1. For more information on fabrics, see: http://www.dressandtextilespecialists.org.uk/dats-toolkits

2. See various early twentieth century corsets, all in pale coloured, plain cotton or silk fabrics with surface embellishments and straight plain busks.

Corset, ca.1900

Corset, ca.1900

Corset, ca.1900

Corset, ca.1900-1905

Corset, ca.1900

3. To learn a bit more about common corsetry misconceptions, this article offers additional information: http://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/everything-you-know-about-corsets-is-false/

 

References

“Corset.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed April 8, 2016. http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/86753.

“Corset.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed April 8, 2016. http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/109083.

“Corset.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed April 8, 2016. http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/86390.

“Corset.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed April 8, 2016. http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/86393.

“Corset.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed April 8, 2016. http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/86394.

“Corset.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed April 8, 2016. http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/86398.

“Corsets Early 19th Century – Edwardian.” Vintage Fashion Guild : Lingerie Guide : Corsets Early 19th Century. July 11, 2012. Accessed March 20, 2016. http://vintagefashionguild.org/lingerie-guide/corsets-early-19th-century-edwardian/.

Johnston, Lucy. “Corsets in the Early 20th Century.” Victoria and Albert Museum. Accessed March 20, 2016. http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/c/corsets-early-20th-century/.

Mida, Ingrid, and Alexandra Kim. The Dress Detective a Practical Guide to Object-based Research in Fashion. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic,  2015.

“Reflecting Historical Periods in Stage Costume.” Victoria and Albert Museum. Accessed March 20, 2016. http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/r/reflecting-historical-periods-in-stage-costume/.

Steele, Valerie. The Corset: A Cultural History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.

Waugh, Norah. Corsets and Crinolines. New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1970.

 

This post was reviewed and edited by Curator and Dress Historian Ingrid Mida.