How did these golden age dresses work?

Denée Benton and Louisa Jacobson on the set of The Gilded Age

Picture: Alexis Rosenfeld (Getty Images)

Period dramas promise old-fashioned romances and intrigues, love affairs communicated in furtive glances and tragic deaths announced by a few polite coughs. More than almost anything else, however, they promise elaborate interiors and gorgeous retro clothing. The new series from HBO, Golden age, more than delivers on these fronts. Set in Edith Wharton’s 1880s New York, the show was created by Downton Abbey showrunner Julian Fellowes and features a cast that includes Christine Baranski, Cynthia Nixon and Carrie Coon, all climbing, scheming and trying to outdo each other socially while dressed in Victorian finery.

As television shows, it is beautiful. I did, however, have a few questions about the big bustles sported on period dresses: what’s going on there? Are these looks related to today’s ass-centric styles? And above all, how did they all sit down?

“You have skirt racks dating back to at least the 16th century,” fashion historian Dr Valerie Steele, director of the museum of fashion institute of technology said Jezebel. The shapes of these augmented skirts have evolved over time – just think of the different styles of voluminous dresses worn by historical figures from Queen Elizabeth I to Marie Antoinette to Mary Todd Lincoln. “And then, in the late 1860s, the hoop skirt began to flatten out in the front, and gradually the base garment, so to speak, only puffed out the back of the skirt,” he said. she declared. Behold, Bumpits buttocks Golden age.

Women achieved the look by attaching bustles to strips of fabric worn around their waists. “Although some were incorporated into dresses, they were usually separate underwear worn under the dress,” fashion historian Dr. Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell wrote in an email, “and came in many different shapes, sizes and prices, ranging from small pads stuffed with straw, down or horsehair to elaborate steel contraptions”.

And yes, they could sit. Bustles tended to be soft or bendable, allowing women to lower themselves neatly into their chairs as the contraptions “collapse in on themselves”, as historical costume designer Jennifer Rosbrugh explained in a helpful YouTube tutorial. that she made to illustrate the mechanics of it all. (She noted that armchairs should be avoided if possible, as they didn’t leave enough room for all the fabric.) real estate, and the corset kept your back straight anyway.

The looks of Golden age reminded me of today’s waist trainers, ass pads and TikTok magic leggings, but I wasn’t sure if that was just misguided presentism or if the hustle and bustle was really the Victorian antecedents of BBL mode. Steele cited debauched sources indicating that the straight male sexual ideal of the 1880s required women to have round buttocks, as they do today. An infamous pornographic book of the time warned that “few men … will long keep a bony woman whose lean buttocks can be held in one hand”. There was also a cartoon subtitled “the ideal of male beauty” which simply depicted an ass in lingerie topped with long locks.

However, Steele noted, this was “definitely not what the women thought was going on” when they did their hair. “So beware of taking it as one hundred percent gospel.”

The first episodes of Golden age are primarily concerned with tensions between Mayflower-descended New York’s elite and the old wealthy and its upstart robber barons. However, even poorer women of the time would have sported similar, albeit less expensive, styles. Bustles and corsets were mass-produced, and “dresses were inexpensive,” Steele said. “People made them themselves or had them made in a department store or had them made by a little seamstress.” Women further from the city centers could order from a catalogue.

Television’s last great period show was Bridgerton, with its draped, neoclassical Dresses. It’s hard to imagine how Western women went from dresses almost as comfortable as nightgowns to strapping steel cages to their waists in just a few decades.

“Maximalism often follows minimalism in fashion,” Chrisman-Campbell noted. “New technologies like the sewing machine and the spring-steel cage crinoline, patented in 1856, made even larger and more elaborate skirts possible. With its birdcage-like construction, the steel crinoline could support yards and yards of fabric, a form of portable wealth.

According to the number of seasons Golden age runs and the timeline the series ends up covering, we might just be at the start of the turmoil. The show is set in 1882, but animations exploded between 1883 and the end of the decade, reaching shelf-like proportions who are more “two kids in horse costumes at a school play” than Kim K. Still, let the one who has ever worn a pair of Spanx cast the first stone.

Maria D. Ervin