The Undimmed Appeal Of The Gibson Girl

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Yet, though her habitat was high society, she was the darling of the less affluent as well. When I say that she took the country by storm, I am speaking nearly literally. In countless houses all over the land prints of Gibson drawings were hung on the walls and Gibson’s long red picture books were on parlor tables. Manufacturers labeled “Gibson Girl” all manner of women’s clothes—shirtwaists with the “Gibson pleat” running from shoulder to waist in a tapering line, skirts, hats, riding stocks, etc. Spoons, plates, even wall paper were ornamented with her face. Her serene likeness was burned—through the cunning craft of pyrography—into wood or leather table tops, glove boxes, umbrella stands, and any other household equipment with a surface large enough to accommodate it. Songs—“Why Do They Call Me A Gibson Girl?”—were written in her honor. Tableaux Vivants , a favorite entertainment at bazaars and other amateur performances, were based on a series of Gibson drawings, usually familiar to the entire audience.

And together with this nation-wide recognition of the Gibson Girl’s charms came a tidal wave of emulation. Girls all over the country wanted to be as nearly like her as possible. They dressed like her; they wore their hair like her. “You can always tell,” wrote Robert Bridges, “when a girl is taking the Gibson Cure by the way she fixes her hair. I’ve watched them go through the whole scale from Psyche knots to pompadours, to Bath Buns, to side waves with a bewitching part in the middle.” Nor did the young men escape her influence. The Gibson man was usually clean-shaven (as were the artist himself and his father before him) and strong-jawed, the precursor of the Arrow Collar man. Many a luxuriant moustache was shaved off. The Gibson Girl was tall. Young men stood erect to gain inches.

Just who was the original model for the Gibson Girl? Many people have said that she was Mrs. Gibson, the lovely Irene Langhorne from Virginia, one of four sisters of legendary beauty. It is true that after their marriage—and a spectacularly happy marriage it proved to be—on November 7, 1895, Mrs. Gibson often posed for her husband, but the Gibson Girl was already in existence before then. She was a composite, not an individual. The artist’s earliest models were often young society girls whom he knew and who were only too happy to come, carefully chaperoned, naturally, to the attractive young man’s studio for a sitting. (The original Gibson Man, by the way, was Richard Harding Davis, Gibson’s friend and author of numerous stories illustrated by the artist.)

Everybody agrees that the Gibson Girl connotes romance. Love, courtship, and marriage are the themes that engaged Gibson’s liveliest interest. And he was truly romantic about his darling creation. It revolted him to think of a girl’s being married off for money, especially to an old man, and this subject appears time after time. His fury was roused also by those international alliances in which American dollars were exchanged for a foreign title. The vogue started in the seventies, when lovely Jennie Jerome, daughter of a New York banker, married Lord Randolph Churchill (and, happily for the world, later produced the mighty Winston Churchill). It had become almost an epidemic in the nineties and gave rise to the term “Dollar Princesses.” In its November, 1903, issue, McCall’s published a list of fifty-seven marriages between American women and foreign noblemen. The list included such resplendent unions as that of Lord Curzon and Miss Daisy Leiter, Count Boni de Castellane and Miss Anna Gould, the Marquis de Tallyrand-Périgord and Miss Curtis, the Duc de la Rochefoucauld and Miss Mattie Mitchell, the Earl of Oxford and Miss Louise Corbin, and the Duke of Roxburghe and Miss May Goelet.

Of course there must have been some love matches among the fifty-seven, but it was apparently significant to Gibson that a contract signed November 6, 1895, when Consuelo Vanderbilt married the Duke of Marlborough, contained the following passage:

“Whereas, a marriage is intended between the said Duke of Marlborough and the said Consuelo Vanderbilt … the sum of two million five hundred thousand dollars in fifty thousand shares of the Beech Creek Railway Company, on which an annual payment of four per cent is guaranteed by the New York Central Railroad Company, is transferred this day to the trustees. And shall, during the joint lives of the said Duke of Marlborough, Consuelo Vanderbilt, pay the income of the said sum of two million five hundred thousand dollars, unto the Duke of Marlborough for his life, and after the death of the said Duke of Marlborough, shall pay the income of the said trust fund unto the said Consuelo for life.…”

For the most part, Gibson portrays the foreigners who fall prostrate at the feet of the Great American Girl as rather seedy specimens, but very occasionally he permits himself to show us a presentable Englishman. This may have been a gesture toward his wife’s sister, Nancy Langhorne, who married Lord Astor. Or the change may have resulted from his own trips to Britain, during which he fraternized with and was feted by the foe and learned that most English lords preferred to marry English ladies.

It is often said that the American girl prior to World War I lived a pretty dull life, at least a carefully confined one, and mostly indoors. Not so the Gibson Girl. As early as the nineties we see her on the tennis court, on the golf links, on a bicycle, even driving a motor car. To be sure, when she went into the water at the seashore, she wore a decorous bathing suit (with the obligatory stockings). But she wore no bathing cap. Either she never got her head under water or Gibson couldn’t bear to hide her crowning glory.