Helloooooo, Dolly. The lovely lady pictured on the right may not be immediately recognizable, but her image paved the way for every American female fashion icon of the 20th century–Clara Bow, Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, and Edie Sedgwick can all trace their cult followings back to her. She was known as the Gibson Girl, and because of the massive circulation of her image in major magazines and book illustrations, she set the first national standard for female beauty in America.
She gets her name from the man who dreamed her up, illustrator Charles Dana Gibson. Beginning in 1890, Gibson’s drawings of a elegant, fashionable, and thoroughly modern woman saturated all sorts of print media for the next thirty years (including Life, Harper’s Bazaar, Scribner’s, and Collier’s), finally going out of style in the dawn of the Roaring Twenties after World War I.
In 1894, Life described the impact of the Gibson girl this way: “Mr. Gibson has a great responsibility on his shoulders, and if he once fully realizes it, it will keep him awake nights. I wonder if he knows that there are thousands of American girls, from Oshkosh to Key West, who are trying to live up to the standard of his girls.”
So what were the characteristics of this singularly enchanting and influential woman? She was tall and slender, with a graceful neck and ample curves thanks those innovative swan-bill corsets that gave her waist the perfect cinch. She epitomized the Victorian ideal of statuesque, youthful beauty while also having an ephemeral, supernatural quality. Think Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. Regal countryside manors and genteel folk, but there’s always a damned ghost in the marsh. Personality-wise, she was portrayed as multi-faceted, quick-witted, graceful, and coy. Perhaps surprisingly, she was also depicted as college-educated, although she never joined the suffrage movement (a bit too radical for Harper’s, I suppose).
All in all, I think the Gibson Girl was a perfect product of a culture rounding the bend on a century and trying to figure out what on earth comes next. With one foot grounded firmly in Victorian tradition and a delicate toe dipping into the pool of revolution, she represented the inner struggle of the women of her time. As Gibson himself said, “I’ll tell you how I got what you have called the ‘Gibson Girl.’ I saw her on the streets, I saw her at the theatres, I saw her in the churches. I saw her everywhere and doing everything. I saw her idling on Fifth Avenue and at work behind the counters of the stores…The nation made the type.”