America’s First Fashion Icon

The Gibson GirlThe Gibson Girl was the personification of the feminine ideal as portrayed in the satirical pen and ink illustrated stories created by Charles Dana Gibson during a twenty-year period spanning the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in the United States. The Gibson Girl set what some argue was the first national standard for a feminine beauty ideal. For the next two decades, the popularity of this fictional image ushered in a national mania for all things Gibson, and she sold saucers, ashtrays, tablecloths, pillow covers, chair covers, souvenir spoons, screens, fans and umbrella stands, all bearing her image.

Charles Dana Gibson, Time cover 1927

The Gibson Girl was tall and slender and endowed with an ample bosom, hips and bottom, molded into the S-curve torso shape by a swan-bill corset. The images of her epitomized the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Western preoccupation with statuesque, youthful features and ephemeral beauty. Her neck was thin and her hair piled high on her head in the contemporary bouffant, pompadour, and chignon (“waterfall of curls”) fashions. The tall, narrow-waisted ideal feminine figure was portrayed as multi-faceted, always at ease and fashionable. Gibson depicted her as an equal, and sometimes teasing, companion to men.

The Crush, 1901

Many models posed for Gibson Girl-style illustrations, including Gibson’s wife, Irene Langhorne (who may have been the original model, and was a sister of Nancy Astor, Viscountess Astor) and Evelyn Nesbit. The most famous Gibson Girl was probably the Belgian-American stage actress Camille Clifford, whose towering coiffure and long, elegant gowns wrapped around her hourglass figure and tightly corseted wasp waist defined the style.

Camille Clifford typifies the Gibson Girl

Among Gibson Girl-style illustrators were Howard Chandler Christy whose work celebrating American beauties was similar to Gibson’s, and Harry G. Peter, who was famous for his artwork in Wonder Woman comics.

Christy Dust Jacket et al

The Gibson Girl personified beauty, but only limited independence and personal fulfillment (she was pictured attending college and choosing the best mate, but she was never pictured as part of a suffrage march), and American national prestige.

At the Beach, 1901

By the outbreak of World War I, changing fashions caused the Gibson Girl to fall from favor. Women of the post-World War I era began to favour a simpler, more practical but no less elegant style of dress created by designers such as Coco Chanel over the restrictive dresses, bustle gowns, shirtwaists, and terraced skirts favored by the Gibson Girl. By the mid-1920s the Gibson Girl’s iconic place in fashion had been replaced by the flapper, and she became yesterday’s girl. Or did she?

The Gibson Girl Survival Radio

Gibson Girl radio

An USAAF survival radio transmitter carried by World War II aircraft on over-water operations was named the Gibson Girl because of its hourglass shape. It included a fold-up/down metal frame box kite for which the flying line was an aerial wire. A hand-crank generator provided power for the distress radio signal. When the user was seated in an inflatable lifeboat, the Gibson Girl shape of the radio allowed it to be held stationary, between the legs and above the knees, while the generator handle was turned. The distress signal, in Morse code, was produced automatically as the handle was turned.

If you look carefully you can still see the classic Gibson Girl shape and ideal in 21st century fashion icons.

Barbies ca. 2009

Research: Angelina Pieros

Sources: Condé Nast Archives, Fashion in Costume 1200-2000, Time Magazine, USAF, Wikipedia

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