Who Were the Gibson Girls?
Today is the birthday of the illustrator Charles Dana Gibson (1867-1944) — a distant relative of mine!
Gibson was born in Roxbury, Massachusetts and studied at the Art Students League in New York. By 1886 he was submitting work to Life magazine and other periodicals. In 1890 he introduced his famous “Gibson Girls”, for whom his sister Josephine was the original Muse. In 1895, he married Irene Langhorne; she and her four beautiful sisters became additional inspirations, as well as his models. He generally featured them in lightly humorous sketches, done in pencil, pen and ink, often with a caption. The Gibson Girls were modern and reflected changing attitudes towards women’s roles in their time. But the women in the images also became the beaux ideal of the day, the height of glamour and fashion. They were portrayed as powerful, cool, superior, independent, and strong (though never political; they weren’t associated with the Women’s Suffrage movement). They were always upper class and accoutered in the latest styles. Female sexual power is bursting out of them. There is an aloof spirit of mockery of the male that is irresistible to both sexes.
The craze also was the inspiration for many a vaudeville act. Texas Guinan did an act called “The Gibson Girl”, and many drag performers made a point in mimicking the look, such as Julian Eltinge, Malcolm Scott, and Bothwell Browne.
By the second decade of the twentieth century, movies were coming in and the Biograph Girls like Florence Lawrence and Mary Pickford now held sway. By World War One, the Gibson Girl was passe. Gibson became editor of Life in 1918, and later took over ownership of the magazine as well. He retired in 1936, though he continued to paint and draw until the end of his life.
For more on vaudeville history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on early film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc