By Xin Wen
The Gibson Girl was a feminine figure created by Charles Dana Gibson in his illustrations. From 1890, his pen and ink drawings appeared regularly in Life and other magazines. For over twenty years, the Gibson Girl craze swept millions of American households. Henry C. Pitz in the book The Gibson Girl and Her America: The best drawings of Charles Dana Gibson said:
There was a time when his pictures were known in practically every home in the land. The latest copies of the comic magazine, Life, were opened first to the Gibson pages. The large horizontal Gibson albums, packed with his pictures, were on countless parlor tables, and on the walls were large size reproductions of his most beloved subjects.
What does Gibson Girl look like? Several distinguishing features are attached to a Gibson lady: S-shape, wasp waist, elegant dress, corset, unique hairstyle (often curly hair, upswept). Does this image remind you of someone? It reminds me of the appearance of Rose in the movie Titanic. The Titanic tragedy happened in 1912, when the Gibson Girl was in vogue. And if Mr. Henry C. Pitz’s description was honest, no girl could escape that fever. So we might just consider Rose’s clothing as a reflection of the Gibson fashion. In fact, the character Rose herself basically represented the ideal woman figure Charles Gibson was depicting. The only difference is that the Gibson Girl was not that rebellious. The female model set by Gibson Girl was independent, athletic, confident, dignified, mischievous, but maintained her ladyship on any occasion. It was said that The Gibson Girl, together with Gibson man were poised and patrician--‘They could smile, but seldom laughed.’
Another female Gibson-like figure on the big screen is the heroine from Somewhere in Time. In this movie, Maude Adams, also known as Elise McKenna, an actress, was living in 1912, the same year as the Titanic sank. As we can see from the pictures here: she was more elegant and decorous, perhaps more close to the ideal Gibson Girl than Rose.
The popularity of the Gibson Girl was accompanied and caused by the expansion of the middle class in America. After the civil war, the United States entered into a ‘Gilded Age’ as Mark Twain called it--the economy was developing rapidly, urbanization progressed at an unprecedentedly high speed.
For people who just entered into the circle of middle class, especially for women, the Gibson Girl provided a typical American dream: this is how life should be; this is where style and elegance was achieved and maintained. I have to cite Pitz again because he caught the origin of the fever:‘ For a rapidly expanding middle class, busily climbing up the social ladder, here was a model of what they could hope to reach. His (Charles Gibson) pictures carried a message of hope, a tantalizing reach for a superior life.’
It looks like the Gilded Age was the soil that bred the seed of the Gibson Girl. However sadly, in 1914, with the eruption of the First World War, the Gibson Girl fever faded. Although Charles Gibson captured accurately what the former era needed, he did not catch up with the upcoming one. In 1920, the new image of the flapper girl (reveling in a shorter hairstyle and minimizing curves); replaced the Gibson Girl as the new model for American women. But the spirit of the Gibson Girl could still be found in today’s America – after all, independence and confidence is the kind of value worth pursuing no matter how time changes.