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Gibson Girls - American Beauty Icons

Updated on September 2, 2016
Gibson Girl portrait known as Irene Adler - see note below.
Gibson Girl portrait known as Irene Adler - see note below. | Source

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.

The artist at work - By George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The artist at work - By George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons | Source

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.

Evelyn Nesbit - Studio of Napoleon Sarony [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Evelyn Nesbit - Studio of Napoleon Sarony [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons | Source

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

Public domain at http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:THE_DELINEATORaugust1901p165.jpg
Public domain at http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:THE_DELINEATORaugust1901p165.jpg | Source
By Woolnough-Corsetiers (Corset Styles 1909-1910.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Woolnough-Corsetiers (Corset Styles 1909-1910.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons | Source

Corset Poll

Would you ever wear a corset?

See results

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.

Sources consulted

Stars of the Edwardian Stage: Camille Clifford. Stage Beauty, accessed January 2011.

Charles Dana Gibson and the Gibson Girls. Lively Roots, accessed January 2011.

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

Are you a Gibson Girl fan?

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    • Missmerfaery444 profile image

      Missmerfaery444 6 years ago

      I think this is a lovely era of fashion and it was great to learn more about it! Blessed.

    • PatriciaJoy profile image
      Author

      PatriciaJoy 6 years ago from Michigan

      @Missmerfaery444: Thanks so much for the blessing. It was a fun subject to write about.

    • Timewarp profile image

      Paul 6 years ago from Montreal

      Enjoyed this unique lens, I blessed it as well :)

    • PatriciaJoy profile image
      Author

      PatriciaJoy 6 years ago from Michigan

      @Timewarp: Thanks so much for the blessing.

    • profile image

      jimmyworldstar 5 years ago

      I'd never heard of the Gibson girl look but I've seen this figure in advertisements from the period. It reminds me of a conservative sort of woman who was being replaced by the later flapper girl.

    • profile image

      Edutopia 5 years ago

      Great lens, and fascinating read. I'd never heard of the Gibson girls but I've seen them show up in old advertisements all the time.

    • profile image

      cyberwizzard 5 years ago

      High Five" Gibson created one heck of a gal! Well written and Nicely done.

    • ClassyGals profile image

      Cynthia Davis 4 years ago from Pittsburgh

      I am totally a Gibson Girl fan. Angel Blessings**

    • Blonde Blythe profile image

      Blonde Blythe 4 years ago

      Yes! I have gibson girl pictures on my walls! Fascinating lens!

    • David Stone1 profile image

      David Stone 3 years ago from New York City

      Nice piece of Americana. I loved it.

    • VspaBotanicals profile image

      VspaBotanicals 3 years ago

      Fantastic Lens!

    • shay-marie profile image

      Shay Marie 3 years ago from Southern California

      I saw Gibson Girl wallpaper in a restaurant once. I thought it was the coolest thing ever!

    • chrisilouwho profile image

      chrisilouwho 3 years ago

      this is really interesting, love the drawings

    • Brite-Ideas profile image

      Barbara Tremblay Cipak 3 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      I've put my hair in a Gibson Girl style without realizing what I was doing! Fun page :)

    • Virginia Allain profile image

      Virginia Allain 3 years ago from Central Florida

      I have some Gibson prints that I should get framed. Love them.

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