During the Edwardian era, images that appeared in popular magazines and pamphlets influenced opinion much as television and fashion magazines shape attitudes today. Perhaps no other illustrator of this era had the same influence on the feminine ideals as Charles Dana Gibson (1867-1944), the creator of the Gibson Girl.
The Gibson Girl possessed a willowy figure with hair piled atop her head. With her impossibly small waist and perfect posture, she was the embodiment of effortless elegance. Charles Dana Gibson’s iconic images inspired countless imitators, and soon similar silhouettes appeared on boxes of face powder, souvenir spoons, perfume labels, and even on wallpaper.
It is said that Gibson was inspired by his wife, Irene Langhorne and her four beautiful sisters, as the prototype for the original Gibson Girl. He was hounded mercilessly by other young women who wished to be immortalized by his renditions. Yes, the women he drew were pretty, but so were thousands of other drawings produced by artists of the day, so what was it about the Gibson Girl that made her so singularly appealing?
I’ll take a stab. The Gibson Girl appeared to be spirited, athletic, and intelligent, but she never lost her femininity. You would often see her play tennis, ride a bike, or swing a golf club. Although she sometimes swanned around ballrooms and allowed tuxedo-wearing men kiss her hand, she could just as easily be seen in a middle class environment, operating a typewriter or smoking a cigarette. Gibson’s wife was from a family of famously liberated women. His sister-in-law, Nancy Langhorne Astor, was the first woman to serve in Parliament when she was elected to the House of Commons in 1916, so perhaps it is no surprise that the Gibson Girl projected a progressive air.
Progressive, but non-threatening. I think it was the Gibson Girl’s fresh-scrubbed, down-to-earth appearance that made her non-threatening. Undeniably beautiful, she was also the sort of woman who might play a round of poker or cast a fishing rod. I think it is this combination that made her attractive to both men and women, and the object of the first nationwide fashion frenzy.
World War I spelled the end of the Gibson Girl. Long dresses that needed corsets were a thing of the past as women began rolling up their sleeves to do the hard work of keeping the fires on the home front burning. But I always do a double-take whenever I see one of those old Gibson Girl drawings. I don’t think her appeal will ever fade.