When you think of feminine ideals, what comes to mind? Venus? Twiggy? Marilyn Monroe’s hourglass curves? How about the Gibson Girl?
After the fussy bustles of the Victorian era, but before the flapper, there was the Gibson Girl. In the Edwardian era of the late 1800s and early 1900s, she was it.
In the late 19th century, Charles Dana Gibson was an art school dropout determined to make it in the art world. He was clearly talented but his drawings left a lot to be desired and editors were, by and large, not interested. He worked to improve, though, and in 1886, sold a drawing to a new magazine called Life. It was just the encouragement he needed. He continued to accept small commissions and a few years later, sold another drawing to Life.
Two drawings in one magazine made him feel almost professional. So almost professional that he set up a studio in New York City where he studied other artists and continued to hone his craft. At the same time, the way that magazines were being produced changed. Magazine printing moved from wood engraving to photomechanical engraving. Where most pen and ink drawings had details too small for engravers to capture on wood, that wasn’t the case with this new technology. Gibson’s new-found style was perfectly suited to photomechanical engraving.
People loved Gibson’s style. The boldness of his pen strokes, his social commentary, and, most of all, these certain figures that became known as the “Gibson Girl” and “Gibson Man.”
In a 1910 New York Times interview, Gibson told the story of how the Gibson Girl was born. He told the interviewer, “The first time the name was used was in a story which The Century gave me to illustrate. It dealt with a certain type of girl, and in the manuscript, when it came to me, this type was called, I think, the ‘Goodrich Girl.’ I noticed that the word was written over an erasure in the manuscript wherever it occurred, but that did not impress me. Later, when — that ‘Gibson’ took the place of ‘Goodrich’ on the printed page — I saw what had been really done, I blushed. I have been blushing ever since. Let’s drop the ‘Gibson Girl.’ I don’t want to feel uncomfortable tonight.”
The Gibson Man was, like the figure above, ruggedly handsome and well-dressed. He was modeled after Gibson’s friend, war correspondent and adventurer, Richard Harding Davis. The Gibson Girl was delicately beautiful and was reportedly modeled after Gibson’s wife, Irene Langhorne Gibson, and sister, Josephine Gibson Knowlton.
Both figures were unmistakably Caucasian.
The Gibson Girl was more than an idealized version of feminity. The Gibson Girl, along with the Gibson Man, was a model of what the newly-forming middle class could strive to be. They were both attractive, happy, and youthful…and they made it all seem so attainable. Her look was natural, although she did wear corsets to give her a slim waist and voluptuous bust and hips. Her hair was often carefully piled on top of her head with tendrils framing the delicate features of her face giving her an ethereal look. It didn’t take long for women to begin copying her hairstyle and dress. Life began to imitate art.
The Gibson Girl was the “New Woman”
This woman participated in physical activities like tennis, golf, and bicycling. Gibson and other illustrators of the time promoted the idea that it was fashionable and, more importantly, socially acceptable for women to participate in physical activities. (Of course, they were often doing these activities in full skirts, long sleeves, and hats but we’re making progress here and that’s all I can ask for.)
The Gibson Girl was also interested in the arts. She played instruments, sang, and was often an artist herself. In several drawings, you can see a Gibson Girl sketching or painting.
She even served on juries! In the early 1900s, women very rarely served on juries, and even then, it was only if the defendant was female (rarer still). But in Gibson’s drawings, women and men served in almost equal numbers and in one drawing, seen below, the jury was all women.
This was the time of the suffragette and the fight for women’s rights. Drawings like the all-female jury sent a clear message. In the United States, jury duty and voting are inextricably linked (in some jurisdictions, registering to vote puts your name in the jury duty pool but, contrary to popular belief, you do not have to be registered to vote to be selected for jury duty.)
She’s starting to sound a bit like Barbie, is she not?
The Gibson Girl was more assertive with men. She was self-assured and was not going being controlled by potential suitors. The use of the hatpin above wasn’t something Gibson made up, although he does present it in a striking way, making the man look like an insect the women are going to pin to a specimen board. No, sometimes women literally used hatpins to ward off unwanted advances.
While the Gibson Girl was usually seen in middle class to upper-middle class settings, she could be seen in high-society from time to time, like in the image above. Gibson loved to create satirical images, especially involving high-society. “The jury”, this time a group of upper-class women, stick their noses up at her while the men smile on. Although she’s not being wholly welcomed into their world, she seemingly handles it with grace. The Gibson Girl could navigate any social situation with ease.
She appeared in songs, clothing lines, and even wallpaper designs (a version of which you can now purchase on Amazon because of course.) Other artists tried to create their own icons of feminity but none came close to the Gibson Girl. Gibson’s image of a beautiful young woman paired with his subtle social and political commentary was a hit. But Gibson said the Gibson Girl didn’t exist. In that 1910 interview with the New York Times, he said, “There isn’t any ‘Gibson Girl,’ but there are many thousands of American girls, and for that let us all thank God.” He saw the Gibson Girl in young (white) American women.
The confident, stylish, do-it-all woman of the pre-war era paved the way for the next feminine ideal: the flapper. Of course, Gibson applied his signature style to the new “It Girl.”
Charles Gibson Struggles with Life and the Gibson Girl Fades Away
In 1920, Gibson partnered with a few other artists to purchase Life Magazine. He held the majority of the shares until 1932 when, struggling to keep the magazine afloat due to competitors, he sold it. He retired that same year and took up oil painting, a medium he dabbled in decades before. Despite being one of the most admired and imitated illustrators of this period known as the Golden Age of Illustration, it didn’t take long for him and his once-beloved Gibson Girl to fall out of public consciousness. He suffered a heart attack in 1944 and died a few weeks later. He suffered a heart attack in 1944 and died a few weeks later.
His Gibson Girl was the 20th century’s first feminine ideal. She was a new woman ushering in a new century, carving a path for women who would come after her.
All of this from an illustration. Art is a powerful thing.
Sources (contains affiliate links)
The Gibson Girl Analyzed by her Originator
The Gibson Girl’s America at the Library of Congress
Lessons from the Gibson Girl by Gary W. Clark
Charles Dana Gibson at Illustration Art Solutions
Charles Dana Gibson on The Red List
Charles Dana Gibson at the National Museum of American Illustration
The Gibson Girl and Her America: The Best Drawings by Charles Dana Gibson, Edmund Vincent Gillon
Beyond the Gibson Girl: Reimagining the American New Woman, 1895-1915 by Martha H. Patterson