Tag Archives: Sarah Baartman

Bustling Around

etching of two women in green and purple dresses with big bustles

Laurie and Debbie say:

The history of European and Euro-American women’s fashion is simultaneously rich and varied on the one hand, and deeply repetitive on the other hand. The crazes and trends vary greatly, but the “invisible hand” of a power-and-money-hungry male establishment can always be found pulling the strings, doing whatever they can to objectify women, make us physically uncomfortable, and ensure that we are contained and controlled by male expectation.

In that context, we were struck by this episode of Slate’s podcast Decoder Ring. The podcast, hosted by Willa Paskin, deconstructs historical curiosities. In “The Butt and the Bustle,” the turns to the periods in women’s fashion when big, huge, and artificially big butts have been a fashion goal.

In our times, this is personified by J-Lo, whose big butt was one of the first in recent years to be admired rather than decried. As Paskin and her various interviewees point out, it’s ironic that J-Lo is more Brown than Black, as many Black women have beautiful large rear ends. This, of course, is just another example of how white sociocultural trends are so frequently borrowed from Black people and their art forms, and white trendmakers are extraordinarily good at misplacing credit for whatever it is that they stole.

Rather than focus on J-Lo and now, Paskin spends most of the show going back into history, and specifically the Victorian history of the bustle: an undergarment so prominent that it defined not only the woman who wore it but the shape and construction of the dress she wore. As you’ll see in the photographs, bustles (for rich women who didn’t have to work) were almost incomprehensibly unwieldy. You couldn’t sit down, you couldn’t go easily through a doorway. What’s more, because artificially big butts were in but small waists were also required, the upper-class woman in the bustle was not only inconvenienced in the back, she was also laced in at the waist, often so tight that it was difficult to breathe.

Paskin spends a good portion of her 45-minute show explaining the shameful and cringe-worthy history of Sarah Baartman, an African woman with a naturally very large rear end. Baartman was exhibited as the “Hottentot Venus,” a savage anomaly. Her exhibitors saw her as nothing more than a sideshow prop who could make them rich. Many fashion historians see her as part of the long-term impetus for the bustle as a fashion object.

Black and white photograph of a woman in a bustle, holding a closed umbrella out in front of her

Featured on the show is Heather Radke, who has written Butts: A Back Story (gotta love that subtitle), an amalgam of the history of butt size and her own personal experience as a woman with a large derriere.

If you don’t know the history of the bustle, you’ll find more about it on the podcast itself, and in Radke’s book. The history of women’s fashion is endlessly interesting, including bustles and butts.


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