A Big Butt in the White House: A Story of the Bustle

When twenty-one-year-old Frances Folsom became the youngest first lady in US history on June 2, 1886 at the only presidential wedding ever held in the White House, she also became something of a fashion icon. Yes, Grover Cleveland was twenty-seven years older than her and had known her as a baby, but no one was thinking about how skeevy that might have been because boy could she rock a bustle.

Check out the bustle on that bride! Frances Folsom marries President Grover Cleveland, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Renowned French fashion designer Charles Worth dressed her in a heavy ivory satin, silk, and muslin gown, trimmed in orange blossoms and draped over a birdcage-like bustle. Okay, some people might have been thinking about the kind of creepy age difference between the president and his choice, but everyone agreed she was a beautiful bride. And the event served as a much needed boon for the ever-important bustle.

New Yorker Alexander Douglas patented the bustle in 1857, but it didn’t gain much traction until Worth, who never actually had to wear one, began incorporating it into his designs a few years later. Then by the end of the 1870s, the popularity of this peculiar fashion accessory had waned as even the most fashion-forward of women decided they might like to occasionally be able to sit down.

Charles Worth wasn’t ready to give up on it yet and pushed to bring back the exaggerated tushy in the early to mid-1880s. Thanks in part to the new Mrs. Cleveland, it worked. But then just two years into her stint as first lady, an article in the Atlanta Constitution mentioned that Mrs. Cleveland had decided she was done with bustles.

Frances Cleveland sitting comfortably without a bustle. Anders Zorn, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Women throughout the US breathed a collective sigh of relief as, for the first time in a few years, they boarded trains and entered crowded public spaces without fear of knocking someone over with their accentuated keisters.

The bizarre thing was that, though women throughout the United States were happily removing these pointless additions to their wardrobes, Mrs. Cleveland hadn’t yet gotten the memo. She entered one of her favorite Washington Department stores and asked for a bustle, only to be shown the Atlanta Constitution article, in which a reporter had taken it upon himself to declare the first lady’s shift in fashion choices. I guess it was a slow news day.

Frances Cleveland took the article in stride saying, “I suppose I shall have to adopt the style to suit the newspapers.” She took her dresses in the next day to be altered for wear by a woman without a comically poofy backside. She was happy enough to let it go.

Before all the fashion historians get mad at me, I realize that not all bustles were probably incredibly uncomfortable. But some of them looked like this. Courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis, Attribution, via Wikimedia Commons

No one seemed particularly upset to let bustles become a thing of the past, as they hadn’t really served much of a purpose to begin with, and life was certainly a lot easier when one didn’t have to worry about tucking a bird cage into one’s skirt in order to appear in public.

What Charles Worth thought of the development I don’t know. I assume he was a little annoyed. Perhaps he even attempted to preserve his power over the fashion industry by suggesting that one or two layers of bustle should still be worn. Unfortunately for him, the people seemed inclined to follow the guidance that made the most sense to them and more and more women began sitting comfortably wherever they pleased.

Regardless of how relevant the influential designer might have felt, or how much he had once enjoyed the confidence of the White House and important people, the air had gone out of his overinflated posteriors. The citizens had had enough. They’d taken off their bustles and weren’t keen to put them back on, even on public transportation. In 1888, the occupants of the White House were pretty much okay with that. 

14 thoughts on “A Big Butt in the White House: A Story of the Bustle

  1. Bustles! Lovely piece
    It’s the S or Grecian bend in the spine needed to give the extra shape supposedly preferred when carrying/wearing one – bosom out and bum out and walk with a bit of a sashay; ouch. If it walks like a duck … tho probably more like a goose with a v bad back 🙂

    1. Thanks! I think the idea, too, was to make the corseted waist look slimmer. I don’t know why women couldn’t just look like women. I have enough back trouble without trailing yards of extra fabric everywhere I go.

  2. Marcia Gaye

    I for one would feel relief at the re-popularization of bustles as I’ve always had a natural one that caused embarrassment (no pun intended) to my general modesty. My witty stepmother referred to it as my back porch. I applaud your varied terms for that particular body trait. I appreciated that it was Mrs. Cleveland who stood proudly on her wedding day as that is the name of my hometown, born and bred, where I first married (in blue jeans).
    I marvel at birdcages as fashion staples, whether under the skirt or atop the head as a foundation for voluminous powdered wigs. Which then gave way to beehives plastered with hair, sans the actual bees which could not live through the 3/4 can of AquaNet spray.
    What we do in the name of fashion. I personally shivered in miniskirts while waiting for the school bus in Cleveland lakefront winters. But I cannot offer any support for corsets, and don’t even get me started on stilettoes.

  3. My teenage granddaughter makes my daughter pay a lot of money to buy jeans that are already worn out and have holes in them. Fashion. Go figure.

  4. Nineteenth century fashion was weird! I guess the next question is whether, having abandoned the bustle in its noun form, Mrs Cleveland then decided it was a transitive verb, and spent the next few years bustling about the White House?

I love comments! Please keep them PG, though. I blush easily.

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