The Gibson Girl
The Gibson Girl influenced society in the early 1900's much like Barbie influenced society of the late 1900's. The Gibson Girl crossed many societal lines opening the way for women to participate in things they had never done before. She like Barbie, portrayed women as strong individuals who could play sports while maintaining perfectly coiffed hair and dress. She was criticized by many, much like Barbie, for creating an unrealistic ideal of what women should look like: perfect proportions and long flowing hair. Despite the criticism she was a trend setter, a model for women in both dress and action, just like Barbie.
Both images were iconic, though one in ink while the other in ink as well as toy form; both created an image of the "ideal American girl or woman". Barbie however, changed and adapted to the changing of societal views unlike that of the Gibson Girl who couldn't while maintaining her identity. Could this be why Barbie has maintained her influence on female society and the Gibson Girl could not? Another reason may simply be that Barbie's spectrum of reach is from the formative years to womanhood, where the Gibson Girl's spectrum was more specific to grown women.
The Creator and Artist:
Charles Dana Gibson 1867-1944
During a childhood illness Charles Gibson's father in an attempt to keep him entertained in bed taught him to draw silhouettes. What started out as whimsy play to entertain a sick child created a life-long career. Gibson, as it turns out was an extremely gifted artist. He gained first recognition as an artist at the age of 12. His parents acknowledging his gift began to enter him in many art exhibitions and the Art Students League. He was unable to stay there due to financial restraints.
He left school at 19, to look for work. He found a job at the new magazine Life, in 1885. He began making sport of the social figures and idiosyncrasies of society rather than typical political fodder which was the norm of the time. He created many such illustrations for Life and other magazines like Tid-Bits, which later became Time. In 1890, he created an icon of the era, the Gibson Girl. "American identity searched for idealizations in art. 'The Gibson Girl' satisfied that need by captivating the imagination of the country and by providing a perfect image of femininity, uniquely American" (The National Museum of American Illustration).
After, the Gibson Girl era was replaced by the "Flapper society" Gibson continued to be an influential contributor to Life and eventually the controlling share holder and owner. At the age of 65 he sold Life and retired from illustrating, but not art. Gibson began oil and portrait painting and much like his talent for pen and ink became quite the artist.
He had a heart attack while on his island off of Maine and died in 1944 a few weeks later.
The History, Importance, and Influence of "The Girl"
The Gibson Girl was a pen-and-ink drawing created by Charles Dana Gibson in the late 1890's. She was every woman's ideal and every man's dream. Charles Gibson was quoted as describing her as "the American girl to all the world."
"Susan E. Meyer described the Gibson Girl attributes in her book, America's Great Illustrators:
'She was taller than the other women currently seen in the pages of magazines... infinitely more spirited and independent, yet altogether feminine. She appeared in a stiff shirtwaist, her soft hair piled into a chignon, topped by a big plumed hat. Her flowing skirt was hiked up in the back with just a hint of a bustle. She was poised and patrician. Though always well bred, there often lurked a flash of mischief in her eyes. She would smile, but was never seen laughing; further adding to her enchanting persona of self-assurance"(Biz-Sites Inc.)
Her hourglass figure, corset and upswept hair with flowing curls became the fashion necessity of the early 1900s. The Gibson Girl created the perfect woman combining traditional female beauty with the "spunk and wit of American youth", according to wisegeek.com. They further state she was "fashion, beauty and social success." Pbs.org makes reference to the "aristocratic air" that was obvious by the Gibson Girl's dress and persona. She was the "spirit of the early 20th century".
Charles Gibson created the Gibson Man to keep the Gibson Girl company, but though they made the "perfect" couple, his popularity never became what hers was. There is no evidence as to why this is. One could speculate that men already had all the power in society they needed therefore negating the need for a role model to help change views or point out absurdities in the "norm". Another could speculate that men at that time just weren't that concerned with their own physical attractiveness therefore focusing on the beauty of the females in society.
Gibson's creation reached millions up and down the social stratus, regardless of position. She remained a constant ideal for over two decades. The Gibson girl reflects an important page in social history and provides a peek at a period of traditionalism that has been lost.
"The Gibson Girl influenced a rapidly expanding middle-class, busily climbing up the social ladder. Young women modeled their clothes, gestures, hair, and features on the Gibson specifications" (The Gibson Girl and Her America,1969). The Gibson Girl was incredibly competent and self-assured, while always maintaining her lady-like manners and etiquette. Even President Roosevelt's daughter emulated the Gibson Girl's dress.
Though she began as a pen and ink depiction of what the ideal American woman was or should be, she became an idea of who the American woman was or should be. Women copied her dress but more so the attitude and persona representation of her was copied. Women began to realize their value and potential was so much greater than the limitations society placed on them. They could and should be allowed to participate in previously forbidden activities, such as sports and voting. They also began to ascertain an awareness of their power women possess over men.
Gibson's drawing titled 'the weaker sex' portrays the Gibson Girl's exerting the "power" they are becoming aware of in a polite and lady-like fashion. The question of the title Gibson "Girl" could be speculated on as could many of the illustration meanings. All research lends support that Gibson meant no disrespect nor was it a subtle notion that women should be personified as adolescences to promote sexuality. Perhaps it is merely the fact that "Gibson Girl" rolls off the tongue quite easily while "Gibson Woman" is a mouth full and he wanted his name to be on this iconic lady.
The Gibson Muses began as many
But in the end was only one
Though, the first drawing of the Gibson Girl was of well known artist model, Evelyn Nesbit. It was stated in many article, "she was a composite, not an individual" (Rogers) when asked who the actual inspiration was. "The artist's earliest models were often young society girls whom he knew and who were only too happy to come, carefully chaperoned, naturally, to the attractive young man's studio for a sitting. Many people have said that she was Mrs. Gibson, the lovely Irene Langhorne from Virginia, one of four sisters of legendary beauty. It is true that after their marriage-and a spectacularly happy marriage it proved to be-on November 7, 1895, Mrs. Gibson often posed for her husband, but the Gibson Girl was already in existence before then" (Rogers).
So it serves to reason that the original Gibson Girl was in fact an artist's appreciation of the beauty of all the women he knew that developed into the appreciation of the only one he loved. The original Gibson Man was Richard Harding Davis, Gibson's friend and author.
The Gibson Girl is seen in many of Chopin's female characters
Chopin identifies the Gibson Girl in most of her stories: a strong woman who knows her place but continues to "push" against societal norms in a "gentle" persuasive way.
The Gibson Girl seems an inspiration for the characters of Mildred Orme from a "A Shameful Affair" and Clarisse from "At the 'cadian Ball." Both characters "push" against the respectable norm only to bend the rule a bit never to break all the while maintaining a "lady-like" composure.
Clarisse from "At the 'cadian Ball"
Clarisse is exactly the literary portrayal of the Gibson Girl illustration. She fits the elegant, tall yet feminine physical characteristics yet independent, covertly flirtatious while maintaining a lady-like composure. Chopin describes her physical attributes as,"Dainty as a lily; hardy as a sun flower; slim, tall, graceful, like one of the reeds that grew in the marsh. Cold and kind and cruel by turn and everything that was aggravating to Alcee." Chopin pens what could be considered the narrative of Gibson's illustrations "the weaker sex" or "the greatest game" in the last half of this story. Both illustrations are about the toying men by the Gibson Girls for love. Clarisse could be considered one of the greatest players of this game based on this story. In the middle of the story she seems to have made a "bad" move but the careful and smart 'Gibson Girl' that she is corrects, calculates and ultimately wins. Finding him in the arms of another she calls him from his soon to be lover, "It was not he negro's voice this time; but one that went through Alcee's body like an electric shock, bringing him to his feet...Come with me, Alcee. There was no need for the imploring note. He would have followed the voice anywhere...And when she told him [she loved him] he thought the face of the Universe was changed."
Mildred from "A Shameful Affair"
Mildred is much like the Gibson Girl when Chopin describes her flirtation with Aber at the river bank," 'Are you fishing?' she asked politely and with kindly dignity, which she supposed would define her position toward him." The Gibson Girl is often portrayed as "toying" with her male interest. Never being overtly flirtatious, yet making her intentions known. Chopin further describes Mildred's dress much like the hair and hats of the Gibson Girl which created her image's elegant nature. "Her straw hat slipped disreputably to one side, over the wavy bronze-brown bang that half covered her forehead." The Gibson Girl drawings often have wavy bangs peeking from beneath their straw hats. Finally, a respectable lady of society, which the Gibson Girl portrays would never tolerate much less enjoy a kiss from a farm hand. This idea or notion sets the final scene of A Shameful Affair.
Madame Aurelie from "Regret"
Chopin may have found inspiration in contrast to the Gibson Girl for her character of Madame Aurelie in "Regret." Madame Aurelie chose to live a life against the lady-like norms that the Gibson Girl defined by her dress and mannerisms. Such norms as her elegant dress, up-swept curls and playful attentiveness to the males in society. Madame Aurelie is described in "Regret," "She wore a man's hat about the farm, and an old blue army overcoat when it was cold, and sometimes top boots. She never thought of marrying. She had never been in love...she was quite alone in the world, except for her dog Ponto and the negroes who lived in her cabins and worked her crops." The Gibson is never portrayed as "quite alone." She is always seen in a group of fun loving "other" Gibson Girls and even when drawn alone her demeanor is depicted as sitting for a portrait in the company of her artist.
The End of an Era:
Society moves from tradition to fun
Charles Gibson saw America's fascination with his "perfect" girl come to an end as World War I ended. Her era came to a close due to the change in societal views. The country's attitude changed from optimism to cynicism. There was no place for this "lady" among the flapper girl images of the late 1920's and 30's. Prohibition brought about bootleggers and many other illegal activities, the laws of civility were being broken not just societal norms.
With most of the men overseas during the War the women had slowly become more and more independent. The women no longer needed to possess a "power" over men to obtain what they desired. They simple took it. They were free to do and act as they chose without concern of societal scorn.
The WWI soldiers came home with experiences from overseas that forever changed the "ideal". They wanted women who were less proper and more fun. The flapper girls wore short skirts, short hair and seemed to have morals as loose as her corsets. Jazz was taking hold and the returning men wanted women who they could have a share a dance, a drink and maybe a warm bed to help them forget the travesties of war. This younger generation saw the era of radio and sound film further distancing the pen and ink drawings of a by-gone era. The Gibson Girl didn't stand a chance, the flapper danced her way into society mainstream leaving the Gibson Girl and her traditional covert flirting as nothing but a historical ideal.
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The National Museum of American Illustration. americanillustration.org. 2009. 28 October 2009
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