Gibson Girls: Defining 'hot' before Beyoncé

In "The Weaker Sex," four women examine one tiny man.
In "The Weaker Sex," four women examine one tiny man.
--Image: Charles Dana Gibson, Library of Congress.
They are regal, smart and, most of all, self-assured. A solid 30 years before women won the right to vote, the drawings of Charles Dana Gibson defined a new feminine ideal.

     The women in these drawings were known as Gibson Girls. They personified independence and beauty long before a string of modern fashion icons -- the model Twiggy Lawson in the 1960s, Kate Moss in the 1990s, Beyoncé Knowles today. But who was Gibson and why were his drawings popular? Here is the rundown, along with a source list for further study:

The illustrator: Gibson (1867-1944) was born to a wealthy family in suburban Boston. As a child, he developed an interest in cutting silhouettes, recounts the website for the National Museum of American Illustration. At 14, Gibson became an apprentice of the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. One year later, his parents enrolled him at the Art Students League. His first job, at 18, was at a new magazine, Life. By 1890, he was also illustrating articles for other publications.

A sensation: He drew his first Gibson Girl in 1890. There were several models, according to a Library of Congress article, including his sister, author Josephine Gibson Knowlton. Others included:

  • Camille Clifford (1888-1970): An actress born in Denmark, she performed in New York and London, where she was a sensation, according to Great Britain's National Portrait Gallery. A song was written for her: “Why Do They Call Me a Gibson Girl?”
  • Evelyn Nesbit (1884-1967): Model and chorus girl, she was in the center of what was then called the “murder of the century.” In 1906, her wealthy husband murdered a man who had raped her several years earlier. (For more on the murder, see the PBS website.)
  • Irene Langhorne Gibson (1873-1956): Charles Gibson’s wife was from a well-known Virginia family that included five sisters. Recognized for her beauty, the bold young woman caught the illustrator’s eye while partying in New York. As told by the website for the Danville, Virginia, museum: “In the early years of Reconstruction after the Civil War, she frequented Northern ballrooms where she quickly became an icon of fashion and femininity.” Later in life, she was involved in politics. 

The times: Gibson’s success is attributed, in part, to his understanding and foresight. Times were changing, and women were becoming more independent. In 1890, two separate women’s groups united to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). The Gibson Girl drawings depicted smart, well-educated and active women.

The fashion: Gibson also documented how fashion was changing. The shirtwaist dress of the period was a major American contribution to fashion; shirts and skirts have been worn ever since,” according to the website for the Brooklyn Museum. There was also the boater hat, perched on a pompadour, wrote Diana Vreeland in “American Women of Style,” published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in connection with a 1975 exhibit.
    “The Gibson Girl was the great American glamour girl long before there were movie stars …. Every girl in America wanted to be her. Women stood straight as poplars and tightened their corset strings to show off tiny waists. They left the piazza for the tennis court, rode bicycles and had the time of their lives.”



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