The Way We WereFebruary 1, 2007 By: American Salon Staff American Salon
Deirdre Clemente is pursuing a Ph.D. in History at Carnegie-Mellon University. She specializes in American cultural history and the interplay between fashion and social change. For more information on her work, visit her Web site, deirdreclemente.com.
Ga-Ga for Gibson
Long before Lindsay Lohen, there was the Gibson girl. Tall, athletic and a bit silly, the Gibson girl was the turn-of-the-century cultural standard for women. More than just a fashion icon, she heralded the arrival of the "new woman."
Evelyn Nesbitt, the celebrated Gibson girl of New York Society in 1902, was the mistress of noted architect Sanford White, who was shot in a jealous rage by her husband, Harry K. Thaw.
You've likely seen her, but you might not know her name. She has a snub nose, the perfect pout, bedroom eyes and a signature mound of wispy hair pulled up in a knot on the top of her head. Her standard uniform? A fitted skirt and a blouse with billowing sleeves. She could have been seen driving her bicycle into a haystack or slipping on the ice and falling into the arms of a random passerby, who was usually well dressed and handsome. She has inspired plays, clothing trends and dances. She was the Gibson girl.
The brainchild of artist Charles Dana Gibson, the Gibson girl was first featured in his illustrations for Life magazine around 1890; five years later she was a national phenomenon. She was often portrayed in comical situations, making a fool of herself or just having fun. Gibson himself became a minor celebrity. Aside from cutting a dashing figure, he married a well-known Southern belle and hobnobbed with New York's elite, many of whom he sketched for a hefty fee. Gibson was a talented artist, but the era had many. Why did his girl have such mass appeal?
The reasons range from accessibility to good old scandal. First of all, the Gibson girl was claimed by women from all walks of life. The upper crust associated her with her charming and good-looking creator and took delight in her many adventures. Those with more progressive attitudes about the role of women in society saw her as a trailblazer. She participated in sports, bypassed ultra-fussy Edwardian fashion for a simple shirtwaist and long skirt, and did very much as she pleased. Working-class women identified with her unconventionality, her ability to stir up trouble and her reluctance to "put on airs." The image of the Gibson girl cut across class and ethnic boundaries, divisions that still carried significant weight in the early 20th century.
The second reason the Gibson girl had such staying power was that her inspiration was quite mysterious. Gibson claimed he had not used a model, but invented her from thin air. The public, of course, refused to believe the claim, and newspaper reporters went on the hunt to discover the "real" Gibson girl. The first option was a well-known model named Minnie Clark, who hailed from an Irish working-class family. The second possibility was the personal assistant to the famed dancer Loie Fuller. This woman was born of a French father and a Cuban mother, and her blended ethnicity, said the reporters, accounted for the Gibson girl's unique looks.
But don't expect to see an E! True Hollywood Story on the origins of the Gibson girl anytime soon. Most Americans are more familiar with the next American beauty to emerge from fashion illustrations-the unforgettable flapper whose image was crafted by John Held, Jr. in the late 1910s.
Before the Blouse
Call it a chemise. Call it a top. Call it a blouse. Women at the turn of the century called it a shirtwaist, and it was a controversial piece of clothing.
Girl in boat wearing the infamous shirtwaist