It can be done! There are any number of contemporary paintings, illustrations, and even photographs showing fashionable women wearing enormous bustles and still managing to sit. How do they do it?
Although there are other eras in recorded history where fashionable women displayed additional width in the rump area, the two bustle periods of the 1870s and 1880s took this concept to the extremes. As the billowing crinoline cages of the 1830s through 1860s fell out of favor, the fashionable silhouette collapsed. Skirts came closer to the body on the front and sides, but still flared out behind. In the Early Bustle Era, from about 1868 to 1876, the bustle was all about poufs and drapes.
By 1878, bustles had deflated, with the extra fabric bunched up to indicate where the frames used to be. Ladies swished about with scads of ribbons, ruffles, ruches, and bows following behind.
This was all well and good for a short time, but as we all know, fashion never rests. By 1882, the bustle re-emerged, bigger and bolder than before. Their dimensions grew progressively more exaggerated until the overly dramatic “shelf” bustles jutted out at a right angle from the body. It was joked that they could serve for tea tables! Even for sporting events, when safety concerns compelled clothing to be modified, hemlines were raised but bustles remained intact. By 1888, bustles had reached their zenith, and by 1889, they nearly vanished from the fashion record. Suspiciously the upper sleeve began to enlarge at this very same time, but the “leg of mutton” look is a topic for another day.
What kind of mechanics supported that unnatural hump? A bewildering array of contraptions, most made of sturdy wire and twill tape. One merchant was said to have complained that there were “more styles of bustles than herrings in a box.” Fortunately, most of these styles were designed with some form of collapsible frame which allowed the wearer to sit, although not necessarily comfortably.
There was also the infamous tournure (another word for bustle) known as the lobster tail. Note the one example is tellingly made up in lobster red cotton:
Not that any Victorian of good breeding would have mentioned the nature of a lady’s unmentionables in public. (Except maybe in patent applications.) Certainly a lady would never even whisper how difficult it would be to sit in one. There were many strategies deployed for the purpose.
Sitting on something backless was a popular option. Indoors piano benches and tuffets, and outdoors, a wall or the crest of a hillock, were suitable sitting surfaces. Then there was the popular Victorian style of perching, or sitting forward on the edge of a chair. Sitting sideways allowed the bustle to hang unimpeded. Leaning forward eased the fullness at the top where the wires shaped the crest of the bustle. Ladies could also lean forward and brace themselves against something, a closed parasol, a friend, or even the card table while gambling!
Quod erat demonstrandum, there are many illustrations offering proof that women did, indeed, sit while wearing bustles. Now that functionality has been demonstrated, shall we address the elephant in the room? Bustles look ludicrous! Did people of the time think they looked ridiculous too? The answer is a definitive yes.
Punch Magazine cartoonists, Linley Sambourne and George du Maurier, poked fun at the exaggerated silhouettes, which were unduly tight in some places and excessively bouffant in others.
Oscar Wilde, an author famous for championing excess, was less tolerant of the bustle, proclaiming it the worst of the worst in female fashion:
…the most ungainly and uncomfortable articles of dress that fashion has ever in her folly prescribed, not the tight corset merely, but the farthingale, the vertugadin, the hoop, the crinoline, and that modern monstrosity the so-called “dress improver” [i.e. bustle]…Oscar Wilde, The Woman’s Dress, 1888
So far we have been looking at fashion plates, drawings, paintings, and cartoons. Surely real women didn’t wear dresses like that! Or did they?
Note that none of these particular gowns are shown in a seated position.
Finally, as with any discussion regarding the extremes of fashion, waiting a few seasons will resolve the issue, for nothing stops the relentless progression of haute couture.