Feline Dress Improvers: The Victorian Fashion in Bustle Baskets for Cats

“As the basket was padded and lined with satin, and bedizened with fringe and ribbons, pussy did not object to being a prisoner therein, and to being placed on the lady’s bustle as a pack.”

Truth, 1887

Kittens at Play by Henriette Ronner-Knip (1821-1909).

During the mid-1880s, the silhouette of women’s gowns was characterized by the size and shape of the bustle or “dress improver.” Unlike the more moderate-sized dress improvers of the 1870s, the bustle of the 1880s was—at its most extreme—large, protruding, and shelf-like. For fashionable ladies with cats, it provided a convenient ledge on which to strap a satin-lined cat basket.

An 1887 edition of the Derby Daily Telegraph refers to these cat bustle basket contraptions as “living dress improvers.” They were first spotted in France in the spa town of Luchon where a certain stylish, cat-loving lady had devised a way of carrying her Pyrenees cat in a basket atop her bustle so that her hands could remain free while out gathering wildflowers. According to the Derby Daily Telegraph:

“A little basket padded and lined with satin, and decked with ribbons to harmonise with the wearers’ costume, serves as a cradle for the furry pet, and is just large enough when closed to contain his body, with a hole cut to allow the egress of his head. The basket is fitted with strings and tied round the lady’s waist, to whom the slightly additional weight is no inconvenience worn as an extra bustle…”

Bustles, as depicted in Grands Magasin Du La Samaritaine Saison, 1886.

The cat bustle basket was an instant hit. The 1887 edition of Truth describes it as being “daring, original, and piquant.” It soon found imitators among other fashionable ladies on holiday in France and, as the Derby Daily Telegraph reports:

“In a few days there were not cats enough to be found to meet the demand for living dress improvers.”

The fashion for cat bustle baskets was so popular that, according to Truth, it even “dared to invade the sanctuary at Lourdes with a mountain tom or tabby on the dorsal hump.” Whether or not this fashion ever made its way to London is unclear. However, it’s worth noting that cats were extraordinarily popular as pets in the 1880s. An 1882 edition of the Gentleman’s Magazine states that housecats in London numbered 300,000 (a figure which did not include the legions of “houseless wanderers” roaming the city). To feed these pampered pets, city-dwelling Victorians are reported to have spent £100,000 per year on “purchasing horse-flesh from the cats’ meat men of London.”

With so many cat-loving Londoners, I wouldn’t be surprised if a fashionable lady or two constructed a cat bustle basket of her own to carry around her favourite feline. Unfortunately, I have no images of this ingenious contraption.

Unknown Title by Henriette Ronner-Knip (1821-1909).

*If you’d like to learn more about the intersection of animals and Victorian fashion, check out these articles from my archives:

You can also find information on cats in the Victorian era in my new book The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries.

Mimi Matthews is the USA Today bestselling author of The Matrimonial Advertisement, The Pug Who Bit Napoleon, and A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty. She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law.

Sources

The Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol. 253. London: Chatto & Windus, 1882.

“Notes from Paris: The Coming Cat.” Truth, Vol. XXII. 15 September, 1887.

“Our Ladies’ Letter: By One of Themselves.” Derby Daily Telegraph (Derbyshire, England), 26 September 1887. © British Library Board.

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Laurie Brown
Laurie Brown
3 years ago

My cats would never forgive me if I tried doing this! Great article.

Lydia
Lydia
3 years ago

I honestly thought you were joking when I read the title of this. Too funny! It’s a shame that you couldn’t find any pictures or drawings of it. I’ve known some cats that would hate such a thing and others that might actually enjoy it.

Tracy
Tracy
3 years ago

A few years ago at a steampunk convention (I know, I said the S word, sorry), a clever costumer wore a cage crinoline sans skirt… but the cage was full of plush cats. So… same idea?

Candy
Candy
3 years ago

Just too funny!

Sarah Guppy
Sarah Guppy
3 years ago

I am making a bustle dress at the moment for a production of ‘The Importance of Being Ernest’ I wonder whether they would notice the addition of a cat basket :)

Christina
Christina
3 years ago

This sounds awfully like a satirical description to lampoon the Victorian bustle which in 1887 had reached extreme proportions. This was a very popular literary pastime. Victorian newspaper and magazine articles made fun of new fashion trends. This might be one if them.

Julia Lake
Julia Lake
3 years ago

Wonderful article. It is really too bad there are no images of a cat bustle to be had. It would be fascinating to see one.

Sandra
Sandra
3 years ago
Reply to  Mimi Matthews

And….so…..we see modern women (and men for that matter) carrying small dogs (cats and birds, reptiles, are another matter) in large purses or even just placed in shopping carts today…they claim to be “emotional support animals”, which gives them the excuse. Some “fashionable” things come back around regardless of their necessity. The 1880’s really is my favorite time period to recreate the clothing, however, I know my two felines wouldn’t go for it! LOL

Sarah Berenz
Sarah Berenz
3 years ago

So funny! Great post! It would be interesting to dig more into the connection between the fashion of keeping cats and dogs as pets (and their fashionable accessories) and the horse-meat industry and its by-products (leather) during this period. A bit gruesome, I imagine, but could be intriguing research.

Erash
Erash
2 years ago

Nice one

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