By the 1880s the corset had become a very elegant and desirable object in a woman's wardrobe and much attention paid to its design and execution. The rapid growth of the corset manufacturing industries meant that there was greater variety in materials, colour, size and fit. The most expensive might be made of satin, brightly coloured corsets also became more acceptable.
In the mid 1880s, after a brief respite, bustles returned and in a more exaggerated form than before. They were usually very structured and sometimes jutted out at right angles from the centre back of the body. This gave rise to the popular belief that a tea tray could be balanced on them. Steel strips were also often attached to the insides of dresses to exaggerate the backward curve of the bustle.
Bustles came in all shapes and sizes. Some were constructed almost entirely of steel, others resembled colourful cushions. These were often stuffed with horsehair, down and even straw to achieve the desired fullness. Bustles were often ridiculed in journals and the popular press. But although they could be cumbersome and uncomfortable, as with the corset and crinoline one must be careful not to focus on extremes. Most bustles in museum collections are not as enormous as all the written criticisms would have us believe. They were usually adjustable in size and women could wear different styles according to their activities and the time of day. Small 'tournures' fastened to the corset were recommended for walking, small 'puffs' were for the early afternoon to remove the flat look of the dress and larger, longer bustles were suited to the ballroom.
'The New Phantom' bustle, dating from about 1884, had a special feature. The steel wires are attached to a pivot so that they folded in on themselves on sitting down and sprang back when the wearer rose. A novelty bustle made to commemorate Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee celebrations contained a less useful device. It was fitted with a musical box that played 'God Save the Queen' each time the wearer sat down.;
In the late 1880s, fashion moved on and the 'bustled' shape was no longer desirable. A small horsehair pad attached inside the skirt was now sufficient to shape the back of the body. By the 1890s hips had emerged to stay. Skirts were simpler and had a sharply defined silhouette of their own without the need for artificial aids. They were cut in an A-line shape flowing from the waist, and heavy materials, stiff petticoats or a firm interlining were usually enough to support them.
Without the bustle even stronger emphasis was placed on the waist. This change in silhouette necessitated a new form of corset. The style became harder and less rounded, the body longer and they were often very heavily boned on each side. Gwen Raverat, who wrote an account of growing up in Cambridge in the 1890s, Period Piece, paints a realistic and very touching picture of the restraints caused by wearing corsets:
'the ladies never seemed at ease…. For their dresses were always made too tight, and the bodices wrinkled laterally from the strain; and their stays showed in a sharp ledge across the middle of their backs. And in spite of whalebone, they were apt to bulge below the waist in front; for, poor dears, they were but human after all, and they had to expand somewhere.'
But, at the same time new technological developments, the growing interest in sports, physical well-being and body comfort were leading to some interesting creations which combined luxury with a concern for health and fitness.
In 1878 Dr Gustave Jaeger argued that woollen clothing promoted better health. He stated that wearing natural, undyed wool next to the skin was a healthy alternative to silk or cotton as it allowed perspiration to pass freely away, leaving the skin dry and warm. By the 1890s Jaeger was marketing a range of woollen underwear including 'Sanitary Woollen Corsets' for women. The woollen Jaeger corset is reinforced with cording rather than great amounts of whalebone struts making it more comfortable to wear. Adjustable shoulder straps and front buttoning create a sensible rather than attractive image.
Aertex, a cellular cotton fabric, fills the spaces between the whalebone supports of another corset of the time. First manufactured by the Aertex company in 1888, the fabric helped keep the skin cool in summer and warm in winter. It is still used in the sportswear industry today. The idea of wearing 'healthy corsets' is an alien and contradictory concept to us. But in the late 19th century, innovations in design and the widespread advertising of less restricting styles were evidence of a new way of thinking which was to contribute to major changes in fashionable dress.