Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth
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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

Jezebel Investigates, The Gilded Age Edition: How Did They Sit Down?

HBO’s gorgeous new period drama is filled with beautiful 1880s fashions. But what's going on with those butts?

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Denée Benton and Louisa Jacobson on the set of The Gilded Age
Image: Alexi Rosenfeld (Getty Images)

Period dramas promise old-fashioned romance and intrigue, love affairs communicated in furtive glances and tragic demises foreshadowed with a few polite coughs. More than almost anything else, however, they promise elaborate interiors and gorgeous retro clothing. HBO’s new series, The Gilded Age, more than delivers on those 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 and plotting and trying to socially out-maneuver each other while clad in Victorian finery.

As television spectacles go, it’s a beautiful one. I had some questions, though, about the large bustles sported on dresses of the era: What’s going on back there? Are these looks related to ass-centric styles of today? And most importantly, how did they all sit down?

“You have skirt supports going back at least as early as the 16th century,” fashion historian Dr. Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology told Jezebel. The shapes of these augmented skirts evolved over time—just think of the varying styles of voluminous dresses worn by historical figures from Queen Elizabeth I to Marie Antoinette to Mary Todd Lincoln. “And then by the late 1860s, the hoop skirt started to flatten in the front and gradually the foundation garment, as it were, was just puffing out the back of the skirt,” she said. Behold, the butt Bumpits of The Gilded Age.

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Women achieved the look by attaching bustles to cloth bands worn around their waists. “Although some were built into dresses, they were usually separate undergarments worn underneath the dress,” fashion historian Dr. Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell wrote in an email, “and came in different shapes, sizes and price points, from small pads stuffed with straw, down, or horsehair to elaborate steel contraptions.”

And yes, they could sit down. Bustles tended to be soft or foldable, allowing women to carefully lower themselves onto their chairs as the contraptions “collapse up onto itself,” as historical costume maker Jennifer Rosbrugh explained in a helpful YouTube tutorial she made illustrating the mechanics of it all. (She noted that armchairs were to be avoided if possible, as they didn’t allow enough room for all the fabric.) Leaning back was out of the question on two fronts—the bustle was taking up valuable back-of-the-seat real estate, and the corset was keeping your back ramrod straight anyway.

The looks from The Gilded Age reminded me of today’s waist trainers, ass pads, and magic TikTok leggings, but I wasn’t sure if this was just some mistaken presentism or if bustles truly were the Victorian antecedents of BBL fashion. Steele cited bawdy sources indicating that the straight male sexual ideal of the 1880s called for women to have round butts, as it does today. One infamous pornographic book from the time warned that “few men…will keep long to a bony lady whose skinny buttocks can be held in one hand.” There was also a cartoon captioned “man’s ideal of beauty” that simply depicted an ass in lingerie topped with long locks.

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Though, Steele noted, that was “certainly not what ladies thought was going on” when they styled themselves. “So beware of taking it as a hundred percent gospel.”

The early episodes of The Gilded Age are primarily concerned with the tensions between the New York’s Mayflower-descended, old-money elite, and its robber baron upstarts. However, even poorer women of the era would have sported similar styles, though less expensively made. Bustles and corsets were mass-produced, and “dresses were inexpensive,” Steele said. “People made them themselves or got them ready-made at a department store or had a little dressmaker make them.” Women farther from city centers could order from catalogues.

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Television’s last major period spectacle was Bridgerton, with its drapey, neoclassical dresses. It’s hard to imagine how Western women went from wearing dresses that look nearly as comfortable as nightgowns to attaching 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 bigger and more elaborate skirts possible. With its birdcage-like construction, the steel crinoline could support yards and yards of fabric—a form of wearable wealth.”

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Depending on how many seasons The Gilded Age runs and the timeline that the series ends up covering, we could just be at the bustle-y beginning. The show is set in 1882, but bustles exploded in between 1883 and the end of the decade, reaching shelf-like proportions that are more “two kids in a horse costume at a school play” than Kim K. Still, let she who has never worn a pair of Spanx cast the first stone.