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Das Über-Bustle

So I made a sedate little dress with just a teensy hint of a bustle for Stephanie last fall to go under this here little blue dress. By “a teensy little bustle”, I mean something that sticks out roughly 24″ behind her. You know, no bigs… So what’s going on under there?

First off, there were a few requirements other than size:

  1. I want it to be light-weight. There was already going to be enough weight from the skirts and the beaded fringe.
  2. It needs to collapse for shipping.
  3. I want to make it out of something with no shape memory, so that it can’t be permanently mangled.
  4. I want to make it out of something she can sit on without discomfort, should she have to sit.
  5. She drives a rather small car.

That last one was the motivating factor for the pop-up paniers a few years back. (Dude, where’s the post on that? I keep finding stuff that didn’t transfer when I did my magical I’ll-write-code-t0-wrangle-my-site-into-WordPress conversion. You know the trouble with being your own tech department? There’s no one else to blame when things go wrong….)

I started out with this festive arrangement:

bustle from side
Pool noodles and foam pipe insulation suspended from ribbons.

I’m a huge fan of the pool noodle. It’s the costumer’s friend. First off, they’re really lightweight and bendy. The good kind have a hole that runs down the length of the noodle, which means you can thread a ribbon through a bit of pool noodle and make an emergency bum roll, ginourmous sleeve header, fake diaper roll line, ye olde medieval style rolled hat – you name it, if it’s built on a roundular base, you can darn sure rig it with a pool noodle.

For the most part, you’re using a 2′ section, so threading a bit of ribbon through the hole isn’t that annoying.

I needed the whole noodle. It’s my height. How do you get a ribbon through that?

fish tape
This is electrician's steel fish tape. It's a thin flexible steel strip with a loop at the end, meant to pull wires through walls.

This is one of the most fantastical inventions of all time. You know those little thingsy-doosies that you thread elastic though to painstakingly work it through a casing? Or the safety-pin humptita-scooch trick for threading elastics and drawstrings? Or those big ol’ plastic bendy needle-looking things that are supposed to make the same job a cinch?

Forget all of them. Buy the fish tape.

For one thing, it’s long. I got the small 25′ length. This is more than enough for any drawstring skirt I’m likely to encounter. It’s designed to reel back into it’s casing. It’s fast to thread through a casing, fast to attach a cord or elastic to the end of, and really really fast to pull everything back through. I’ve used it for more projects that I can count already. This is one of the best 10$ I’ve ever spent. (It’s also pretty dang handy for getting extension cords under low-clearance furniture, so I guess the electricians are on to something there…)

And it’s the only way I know of reliably getting ribbons through 5-6′ bendy tubes without any cursing.

rig on yoke
I used a very simple center-back and sides rig from a waist yoke to hold the foam bits up, then added a poof of net to smooth out the top.
underskirt half draped
I had the underskirt about this far draped when I knew I was in trouble.

My very simple suspension system was not distributing the weight of the fabric well enough. The more weight added over the bustle, the more it drooped.

I tried pulling the center back support ribbon tighter, but to pull it tight enough to bear the weight actually deformed it so it looked more like a C than a U from the top.

Now, I’m a pro and all, and I’ve got my little fashion design degree, so I know that this was never ever covered in any class I took gosh darn it. Not gonna lie; I panicked a little, what with how the support for the skirt is vaguely crucial to the success of the whole entire outfit.

Then I realized that this was sort-of-kind-of-covered-ish in a class – Physics. The trouble there is that I haven’t take physics since high school, and I’m 36. (I have no idea when that happened…) It’s been a while, so the details are a little on the shady side. Also, it was not really my best class. So I know we watched a movie that talked at least a little about suspension bridges, but I think it had more to do with harmonic resonance than with the actual mechanics of the suspension.

So I re-rigged things a little….

bustle with more rigging
The additional rigging distributes weight on the skirt more evenly over the mounting yoke, and adds a lot of support to the sides of the bustle.

The gist of what’s happening now is that, when the center back tries to pull down, it pulls the side supports taught with prevents the bustle from dipping. Well, from dipping much, at any rate. The two ribbons for each side rig actually stabilize each other in a similar fashion, because they attach to opposite sides of the yoke. It’s kinda complex in there.

I actually shipped it with those safety pins in the main supports. That allows slack to be added in to the equation if the body inside the bustle pushes more against the bustle than my form does. (That would angle the whole bustle up – letting out the pins angles it back down. Turns out that was an un-needed over-think on my end, but I worry about things like that.)

You know what else is neat about pool noodles? You can pin into them. It makes it way easier to keep the support ribbons from sliding about…

dress over bustle
The bustle, supporting all the layers.

The bustle is supporting:

  1. a twill petticoat (genius choice, there, missa)
  2. a taffeta underskirt with knife pleated trim and a double row of bead fringe
  3. a taffeta overskirt with a ding-dang lot of bead-fringe.
  4. that lovable-yet-weird taffeta octopod-and-cabbage-rose arrangement.

The reason that the ruffle of the overskirt is pooling on the grounds is that the whole get-up is heavy enough that it’s tipping the dress form backwards.

I already had a box propping the two back legs of form’s stand up to angle it forward. It was literally pulling the form body at an angle to the form-stand.

I suspect the fact that a good lot of the beads in the bead fringe were glass had a lot to do with it. ;)

Incidentally, yes, those are Chicago Cubbie Bears pool noodles. This is partly because I buy my noodles late in the season when it’s costume time, so I take what’s left. But it’s also a lot because I was sending the finished product to another state. I’m not a sports fan, per se – I just think underthings should be entertaining. ;)

Footnote: I apologize for the grammatical awkwardness of the first sentence of this post. I think I need to stop writing soon, because I know it’s awkward, and I know it’s a run-on, but I can’t for the life of me reparse it into two full sentences…


  1. Caitlin
    Caitlin December 24, 2011

    Beautiful, and brilliant! I must get me one of those fish tapes.. I’m always using a safety pin.

  2. Stephanie H
    Stephanie H December 27, 2011

    And gosh-darn unbeliveably comfortable to wear, too! Plus it collapsed for sitting on, and in my Mazda, too! And it was so, so, pretty and sparkly, and clicky and girly, and the COLOR was out of this world, and people could NOT stop going on and on about it…me included :-) You’re pure genius, Missa, and you outdid yourself. Thank you so very much!!!

    • missa
      missa December 31, 2011

      Stephanie – Only for you, gorgeous! ;) You have a way of inspiring my most creating solutions… Could be the Mazda thang…. *laugh*

  3. Catharine
    Catharine December 30, 2011

    I love fish tape. In fact, I use the metal fish tape (1/4″)to bone my corsets. This bustle is awesome engineering!Thanks for sharing! Catharine

    • missa
      missa December 31, 2011

      Catharine – Really?! That’s fab! True story – I bought the fish tape with an eye towards using it as part of the bustle structure. What are you using to cut it/finish the ends when you use it for corset boning? It seemed impervious to my cutting pliers. Are you using tool dip or are you filing?

  4. Jeanne T.S.
    Jeanne T.S. December 31, 2011

    Very nice! I once used a blow up swim tube for a farthingale for a costume I made for my young daughter.

  5. Jeanne T.S.
    Jeanne T.S. December 31, 2011

    And where can I get this fish tape, by the way? Sounds brilliant.

  6. Erin
    Erin February 20, 2012

    I love it when you costume with pool noodles! I read and remember the panniers post with pool noodles (say THAT 10 times fast), and I think you also used pop-up clothes hamper thingies? Maybe?

    • missa
      missa March 4, 2012

      Teehee…. It was panniers made with pop-up hampers, with little pool noodle bumpers for wearing comfort. ;)
      I saw that Chris March show (Mad Fashion) not too long ago, and he made panniers out of pop-up pet houses. It’s always entertaining to me when I’m not alone in my crazy…. ;)

  7. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth May 21, 2013

    Gosh, if pool noodles had been around in the early 1880’s, the bustle might have stayed in fashion longer! Brilliant!

  8. DannyJane
    DannyJane October 2, 2013

    Good grief! The high-tech modern bustle for the 21st century woman! I have questions about sitting in that thing, potty issues and so forth, but right now I’m just being awed by the engineering! Howard Hughes–eat yer heart out!

    • missa
      missa October 2, 2013

      *laugh* Thanks! Sitting shouldn’t be such a problem in this one. The noodles will bend, and don’t have shape memory. As for the potty… You’re on your own. ;)

  9. jessicacannonteaches
    jessicacannonteaches June 21, 2014

    I myself can not sew to save my life, but I appreciate those who can, and I believe what you did here is awesome! I have several friends who sew religiously, and I know it isn’t easy to build an outfit, especially historical. Wonderful job!

    • missa
      missa June 21, 2014

      Hi, Jesse – Thank you! Honestly, if you can drive, you can sew. It’s just learning the details. ;)

  10. Stephanie
    Stephanie July 17, 2014

    Just saw this string again and thought I’d reply (way late, but totally SFW I promise). So, potty was not even an issue. (1) Pre-dispense tissue. This was a crucial step and I am so glad I thought it out. (2) drop trou, (3) lean over/squat down and grab the floor-most pool noodles just behind each of my ankles, (4) stand and lift the pool noodles straight up to waist-ish (which caught and lifted all layers of cloth to that height) and (5) push my wrists (holding the pool noodles) forward, tilting the thumbs down toward the ground in front of me (this levered up the rearward noodle & skirts combo to roughly shoulder blade height in the back) and we were all clear. It was heavy, and I’m not saying it was pretty…employing said tissue required freeing a hand by leaning back to pin the skirts up against…whatever was there. But all’s well that ended well. And I still love the dress in all of its taffeta jet-beaded loveliness AND the cunning little hat you made to perch up on my braids and loops of hair, missa!

    • missa
      missa July 18, 2014

      *laugh* I mean, as long as it all came out all right… :) That hat is still one of my favorites of all time.

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