The Undimmed Appeal Of The Gibson Girl

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In the dear, nostalgic days of the 1890’s and early igoo’s a vibrant, radiant young woman took the country by storm. She was the Gibson Girl, a brilliant invention, something quite new. She was lovely, animated, and unquestionably American. And today, though four change-filled decades have passed, more men are still in love with her than you might think.

Why is her appeal still so potent? She was far removed from our current notions of the ideal American woman. She was not particularly bright and not highly educated. She was not politically informed, and her social conscience, in present-day terms, was dormant. She could not cook or manage a home, nor did she resemble today’s pin-up girl, whose charms are so candidly revealed in certain large-circulation magazines.

Yet even now she evokes worshipful sighs from men too young ever to have known anyone resembling her. One reason, I think, is that the Gibson Girl was forever a girl-forever young and beautiful. She was femininity incarnate without being (in today’s terms) sexy. And nowadays, when sex is portrayed in such blatant detail, it is refreshing to be given the promise of future raptures rather than the play-by-play accounts of bedroom romps in current novels.

In any discussion of the Gibson Girl there is a word, now taboo, that one cannot avoid. She was a lady. In fact, John Ames Mitchell, founder of Life (the original one), explained that one of the reasons he accepted the first drawings of Charles Dana Gibson was that he could draw a lady. The Gibson Girl represents the rosiest aspect of Society (with a capital S) at a period in American life when Society was more clearly defined, less complex, and far more admired than it is today. Gibson himself, by virtue of his birth, his engaging personality, and his agreeable manners, had the entree to New York’s highest social circles and found the best it had to offer highly sympathetic. By “best” I mean a group of congenial people of established family, inherited wealth, and cultivated tastes, who employed their leisure in genuinely graceful (not “gracious”) living.

Gibson hated snobbishness; the only person he lampooned openly was Ward McAllister, who, it will be remembered, numbered the people worth knowing in New York as 400, that being the capacity of Mrs. Astor’s ballroom. Gibson also hated the vulgarity of those newly rich who attempted to buy their way into elite circles. His picture entitled “Mrs. Steele Poole’s Housewarming” is a not-very-subtle reference to the onslaught of newly made millionaires from Pittsburgh —where steel combines were proliferating—on New York Society.

The Society that Gibson approved of, and in which he was most at home, was the old guard—scornful of public entertainers and of the attentions of the press. A lady’s name appeared in newspapers just three times: when she was born, when she married, and when she died. That Society stoutly resisted the idea that wealth and position are synonymous, confident that in itself it represented all that was best and most important in American life. And many people of less exalted position agreed.

It is hard today to realize how widespread was the interest in the doings of the socially prominent and how faithfully the magazines reported them. The American public read avidly and respectfully of the “at home” given by Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt in Newport in 1902, where an illuminated mid-way had been set up with Negro dancers, a shooting gallery, singing girls, and other exhibits found in amusement parks, and at the far end, a theater where the New York cast and scenery of a current Broadway musical, The Wild Rose , had been transported for the evening. Or a dinner dance given by Mrs. Ogden Goelet, where in one cotillion figure 700 gardenias were distributed from a Russian sleigh.

The American public saw nothing to censure in the fact that several New York hostesses were able to serve a dinner for 100 guests on a few hours’ notice—no informal buffet, but the customary seven- or eight-course affair with appropriate wines. Servants there were, to be sure, in task-force strength, some large country places being staffed by as many as fifty or sixty, including gardeners and grooms. These entertainments were not paid for from expense accounts. The cost came from the host’s private purse.

It was against this glittering background that the Gibson Girl—beautiful, queenly, confident—moved in triumph.

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.

Actually, by the turn of the century, the outdoor life was an accepted thing in upper class circles, chiefly along the eastern seaboard. With the exception of bicycling (that great liberator of American women as a whole) most outdoor sports suitable for mixed company began as diversions for the well-to-do and gradually filtered downward in the social scale to become the property of the masses. Public tennis courts and golf courses were many years in the future. The automobile, in its early years, was a rich man’s toy rather than the necessary adjunct of every American family which it is today.

So, when Gibson put a racket or a niblick in his heroine’s graceful hand, he was reflecting the mores of that small sector of the social scene that most interested him. In his preoccupation with romance, he was also quick to see that these games offered ideal situations for unchaperoned but wholly respectable association between the sexes. An afternoon on the links— what an admirable setting for courtship! One of his best-known drawings, entitled “Is A Caddy Always Necessary?” depicts a young couple seated glumly on a bunker, hoping their gangling young club carrier will realize their desire to be alone. One may be assured that even if these goddesses could handily defeat their adoring opponents, they were far too tactful to do so.

Oddly enough, when the Gay Nineties are revived today in revue skit or greeting card, the spectacle bears no resemblance to the Gibson Girl or her circle. All the men have handle-bar moustaches and the girls are made up as Sweet Rosie O’Grady or Mamie O’Rourke. In other words, they are low life. Very merry, very gay, but definitely low life. The Gibson Girl was just as definitely high life. Moreover, whereas these jovial modern revivals from the Bowery are comic valentines, the Gibson Girl defies caricature. The short-haired, short-skirted hoyden of the twenties, the flapper immortalized by John Held, was something of a caricature to begin with. It is almost impossible to exaggerate her. For quite another reason, the Gibson Girl remains as she was created, immaculate and bewitching. To burlesque her would be sacrilege.