The Gibson Girl was the creation of artist Charles Gibson in the late 19th century in the United States. The artist saw the Gibson Girl as the personification of his ideal of feminine physical attractiveness. The modern feminist movement was only beginning to be heard and many women still saw their role as being domestic.
It’s easy to look back with modern eyes and be horrified by these depictions of women as being fragile, voluptuous, and slender with an exaggerated S-curve shaped torso that was only achieved by wearing a swan-bill corset. But writers of the time depicted her as the ‘new woman’ — independent, well-educated, young and poised to play a more visible and active role in the public arena. Just as long as her neck was thin and her hair was piled high upon her head.
In the United States, magazines that were available at low subscription rates were extremely popular at the turn of the century. Because of their wide distribution these magazines became a prime conveyor of the new American feminine ideal. Images of beauty defined by male illustrators and advertisers were marketed to a mass audience of young girls.
Gibson girls were depicted as smart and progressive, but they would never have participated in the suffrage movement. The Gibson girl undermined women’s desires for progressive socio-political change by promoting a certain ideal of beauty (unattainable for most), a certain social class (upper middle) and traditional feminine roles.
The Gibson girl was able to break out of some societal norms. She was able to take a more active part in physical activities such as bicycling, tennis and golf, even though she would still have been restricted by her clothing!
There was no suggestion of pushing the boundaries of women’s roles, instead they often cemented the long-standing beliefs held by many from the old social orders, rarely depicting the Gibson Girl as taking part in any activity that could be seen as out of the ordinary for a woman.
Although the clothing of a Gibson girl appears old-fashioned by today’s standard, the drawings popularised the interchangeable shirtwaist and separate skirt. This would become the affordable costume of working-class women at the turn of the century despite the upper middle class origins of the Gibson girl archetype.
Gibson did present women in working environments, reflecting the increasing numbers of females in the workface. These drawings were mostly restricted to the more gender-appropriate fields of nursing and secretarial work. This helped to reinforce the ‘domestic ideal’ and gender stereotyping that prevented women taking up other options.
In the newly developing art of cinema many leading actresses came to embody the Gibson girl and helped promote it to the masses, including Florence Lawrence, Camille Clifford and Mary Pickford. Photographs of these women exemplified the physical characteristics of the Gibson Girl.
During the era of the Gibson girl there were improved educational opportunities for women. Several universities and colleges offered courses specifically for young women. The trouble was that society wasn’t ready to allow these women to work in professions alongside men. Greater education created further unrest with both the state of women’s roles in society and the portrayal of the Gibson girl as the ideal woman.
The advent of the First World War created many changes in society. Among these was the shift in women’s fashion away from the exaggerated hips, waist and chest portrayed by the Gibson girl.