Frances Cleveland and the Bustle

It was a hot, slow, lazy week of July 4, 1887, in Washington, DC, and a couple of newspapermen (and they all were, with the tiniest of exceptions, newspapermen), were up to mischief in the newsroom. “What can we write about?” they mused, pondering the fact that the president and his young, extremely attractive wife were at their farm, Oak View, located out the Tenallytown Road. Congress was gone, and anyone who had anywhere else they could be besides hot, swampy Washington, was nowhere to be found.

“I know!” one very enterprising reporter exclaimed. “Mrs. Cleveland is such great copy! We’ll write a story about her….We’ll say that she’s given up the bustle!”

And so, on July 5th, the nation’s newspapers were abuzz with word out of Washington that the twenty-two year old wife of fifty-year old President Grover Cleveland had set all Washington society aflutter because she had abandoned the bustle. The first lady had driven her buggy from the farm to the White House to meet with friends, so the papers reported, and they were all agog at her “bustle-less” attire. The papers concluded that the fashionable Mrs. Cleveland, who had been the nation’s style-setter since marrying the President thirteen months earlier, on June 2, 1886, would lead all women to abandon the bustle.

As a first-time biographer, and having yet to learn that news can easily be exaggerated, I reported the bustle incident with serious fact in my biography of Mrs. Cleveland. Years later, having learned much more about the challenges of research, and having begun to study first ladies’ fashions, I think the Frances Cleveland and the bustle story is still one worthy of repeating – albeit tongue-in-cheek and with a little more background added to it.

If, indeed, White House visitors found Mrs. Cleveland without a bustle, they may, in fact, have found her wearing a dress with a reduced bustle. The undergarment, which had been more or less a mainstay of women’s fashion since the 1870s, underwent a transformation in the latter part of the 1880s and was reduced in size. By the early 1890s, it disappeared completely from women’s styles as clothing adapted to the more active and streamlined “Gibson Girl” model.

Parisian couturier Charles Frederick Worth is credited with inventing the bustle. His goal had been to eliminate crinolines, the hooped undergarments that women wore to widen their skirts. Bustles in the 1870s were large and created and “S”-shaped figure, thrusting the bustline forward and the hips backward.  In the 1880s, the bustle was rigid with a folding frame that was believed to support the back and improve women’s health. The bustle was also slowly abandoned as dresses moved from two pieces – a separate bodice and a skirt – to a design known as the princess line, a design attributed to Worth. A “princess dress” was a one-piece dress cut without a waist seam. With such a design, a smaller bustle would have been appropriate.

So, how did the bustle story with Frances Cleveland finally end? According to news reports, she and a close friend went shopping at Washington’s Woodward & Lothrop’s Department Store in September (1887). When the First Lady asked to be shown a bustle, the sales clerk replied: “Why, Mrs. Cleveland, ever since word got out that you had abandoned the bustle, nobody has bought one. We’ve moved them all to the basement! But,” said the enterprising clerk, “if you would like to see one, I’d be happy to go down there and get them for you.”

Frances supposedly turned to her companion and said, “Well, if they say I’ve quit wearing the bustle, then I guess that’s what I need to do.”

Frances Cleveland in 1886 with gown and bustle.

Frances Cleveland in 1886 with gown and bustle.