Gibson Girls - American Beauty Icons
An Age of Optimism
The Gibson Girl was a fashion and beauty icon in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But more than that, the artist that created her—Charles Dana Gibson—believed she embodied the emerging independent yet still perfectly feminine American woman he idealized.
His drawings became wildly popular and many young women wanted to be the Gibson Girl. The merchandising of these images reached proportions comparable to Star Wars. You could dine on your Gibson Girl tablecloth and china, and if you fancied an after-dinner stroll you could bring along the umbrella bearing her image in case of rain, just to name a few of the items to choose from.
It may seem strange to think of a graphic illustration having such an impact on American culture. But imagine if there were no movies, TV or internet. Photography was still considered a new art and more expensive than paying an artist for drawings. Before the silver screen lit up imaginations, it was illustrators whose work appeared in newspapers and popular magazines that set the tone for fashion.
Gibson Girl Trivia
The portrait above is known as Irene Adler, a fictional character from the Sherlock Holmes story "A Scandal in Bohemia" and was one of the few people to outwit the great detective. It's unclear if Gibson meant to depict this character or his wife Irene in the drawing.
About the Artist Charles Dana Gibson
Golden Age of Illustration
Artist Charles Dana Gibson was the son of an American Civil War veteran and a loving mother. Both his parents encouraged his talent in drawing silhouettes, a popular art of the era. Though, they were of meager means, they managed to send him to art school. He was able to study for two years but his family couldn't continue to pay his way. He set out to sell his drawings, but he didn't prove to be much of a businessman at that time.
He was persistent though and eventually started to sell his illustrations to many popular publications. While he was a working artist, it wasn't until he created the Gibson Girl that he became well known. After World War I when the Gibson Girl was less popular and the flapper girl became all the rage, he settled down to do mainly oil portraits of his home state and family.
Learn How to do Gibson Girl Big Hair - Even if you think you can't
Gibson Girl Hair
Oh that hair!
The Gibson Girl look included her famous updo which was a take on the chignon. It was a mix of classic elegance and a hint of fiery spunk with wisps of hair falling out in a seemingly haphazard fashion. This style epitomized the outgoing, optimistic spirit inherent in Gibson's illustrations. It showed a lot of class with just enough of an air of independence.
Long hair for women was the status quo of the era. This hairstyle gathered these long locks on the top of the head or in a bun closer to the back. Women with naturally thick and curly hair had an easier time pulling this look off, but with some effort, women with almost any texture of hair could make it work.
Gibson Girl Fashion
The fashion was dictated by the mores of the day which included Victorian era sensibilities. A woman was expected to be feminine and not show too much skin, though some shoulder and possibly a hint of cleavage was allowed. While this seems a bit stuffy compared to today's standards, sexuality was still present in the obvious curves of the hourglass figure held in place by corsets and showed off by long flowing gowns. Day wear was near ankle-length skirts, frilly tops accentuated by cinch waists. See the example below.
This photo is that of Evelyn Nesbit. She was an artist's model and chorus girl who was one of the many women who posed for Gibson. She portrays the elements of Gibson Girl fashion, though her personal life reads like a sordid novel, but that's a different story.
It wasn't just American women who embodied the Gibson Girl look. In fact, the artist held a contest to search for the ideal feminine beauty he envisioned the Gibson Girl to be. He chose the Belgian-born actress Camille Clifford as the woman who represented this ideal. This style was incredibly popular in Europe and America.
Examples of Early 20th Century Fashion
Would you ever wear a corset?
The Gibson Waist
What gave the women of the era that lovely shape? You guessed it—corsets. Even though I think we've gone to the opposite extreme (letting it all hang out if you will), I'm still glad the days of feeling naked without a corset are long behind us.
The Beauty Fades
But leaves a lasting impression
At the time the Gibson Girl first became famous, America was in the midst of the Gilded Age, a time of incredible economic growth due to industrialization. The name came from the title of a book by Mark Twain, the famous American humorist. The term implies that which appears beautiful on the outside but is full of turmoil within.
This was a time of great wealth and conversely great poverty. Not all wealthy industrialists treated their workers with respect. The Gilded Age preceded the Progressive Era when many social policies changed including better treatment of workers. While her ideal impressed itself upon a culture, she was clearly of a certain class unlike what many regular Americans of the time personally had any experience with other than what they read about or were employed by.
The popularity of the Gibson Girl's image lasted into the beginning of the 20th century but faded not long after the start of World War I. Fashions changed, and the flapper girl came into vogue. The Gibson Girl's impossibly thin yet voluptuous figure was hardly attainable for the average woman. Maybe the reason she still holds a place in our national collective psyche is that even with reasons to be pessimistic she represented a spirit of innocence and hope at the turning of a new century.
Stars of the Edwardian Stage: Camille Clifford. Stage Beauty, accessed January 2011.
Charles Dana Gibson and the Gibson Girls, Lively Roots, accessed January 2011, http://www.livelyroots.com/things/gibsongirl.htm.
The Gilded Age. Schmoop University, 2010.
Dworin, Caroline H. The Girl, the Swing and a Row House in Ruins. The New York Times, November 4, 2007.
© 2011 PatriciaJoy