Each generation represents a new image of the feminine ideal, an updated version of the features that make up what most people would consider a beautiful woman. At the end of the 19th century, there was such an image, but during a time of great change for women.
During the 1890s, a new woman emerged in America who instantly changed–and challenged–the standard feminine image. These free-spirited, fierce women were emboldened by the suffragists, who broke apart the traditional female roles.
Progressive politics had introduced new divorce laws, and jobs were being taken by women who no longer considered their home as the only working place. These “New Women,” especially the younger ones, were forging an identity that represented an authentic milestone in women’s history.
However, one famous illustrator, Charles Dana Gibson, had something else in mind for the public image of the ideal female. Using his respected position in popular American magazines, the talented Gibson illustrated a kinder, gentler “New Woman,” who became known as the “Gibson Girl.”
The Gibson Girl sought fulfillment and a degree of independence, but not at all like the suffragette who was paving the way for a new, completely unconventional femininity.
The Gibson Girl image went like this: a member of upper-class society, she was always perfectly dressed in the latest fashionable attire. Her social status allowed her the time to look for personal fulfillment, finding it in the most unusual places for women at that time. The Gibson Girl might be an adventurer who embraced outdoor physical activities, often cycling in Central Park or swimming, playing tennis, or golfing. As well, she ventured beyond the social spheres considered the standard for upper-middle class women, realizing her artistic aspirations by drawing, painting, singing, or playing the violin.
Enjoying physical activities and a comfortable lifestyle, the Gibson Girl was defined by an athletic figure and other attractive physical features.
She was a “fragile lady” and a “voluptuous woman” at the same time. The Gibson Girl was tall, her slender lines expressing her respectability, while large hips and full bust added to her seductiveness. Wearing a swan-bill corset, she introduced the new fashion fad: the S-curve torso shape.
This ideal and stylish female possessed a slender neck and full lips, wearing her hair piled high in a pompadour or chignon (waterfall of curls).
The Gibson Girl wardrobe was full of elegant dresses, shirtwaists, bustle gowns, and floor-length skirts, each worn on the appropriate occasion, at a proper time of the day.
The Gibson Girl was calm in spirit, yet self-possessed and poised. She didn’t involve herself a lot in politics and managed to stay largely within the boundaries of traditional feminine roles. But, as presumably equal companions to men, these girls were sexually dominant in a teasing, breezy manner. They were always picky about men, crushing them ruthlessly when necessary. Many of them were single and uncommitted but always involved in a romance to fight boredom.
Men would often admire the Gibson Girls, following them everywhere, drawn to their irresistible beauty and charm.
Charles Gibson’s illustrations made women across the world strive to match and follow the idealized image, creating a national beauty standard for American women. The Gibson Girls gained instant recognition. Many women posed for the Gibson Girl-style illustrations, including Gibson’s wife, Irene Langhorne, who was probably the original model.
The most famous of his models were the actress Camille Clifford and the supermodel of the day, Evelyn Nesbit. Their images appeared in the magazines Scribner’s, Harper’s, Collier’s, and The Century, invading popular culture. Much merchandise also carried their images, being sold on ashtrays, pillow cases, souvenirs, saucers, fans, etc.
After 20 years, the Gibson’s star started to dim with the outbreak of World War I. Years before that, Evelyn Nesbit was enmeshed in an infamous murder trial when her jealous husband killed Stanford White on the rooftop theatre of Madison Square Garden. This seemed to point the way to the pitfalls of being an ideal.
Nevertheless, the persona of the Gibson Girl paved the way for a future icon, the Flapper of the 1920s.