Fashion was a preoccupation of American women throughout the 19th century, especially after the availability of mass-produced textiles; newspaper ads and popular publications include fashion segments detailing the latest trends from Europe. The Gibson Girl, named after artist Charles Dana Gibson’s fashion illustrations, was the first nationwide standard of beauty and an unprecedented sensation. The Gibson Girl embodied a set of ideals and a “new” feminine standard of beauty.
I place “new” in quotations because, physically, the Gibson girl is not drastically different from earlier fashions, with her hourglass figure, tall and slender form, and elaborately coiffed hair. Corsetting was still standard in the 1890s and a more cinched silhouette was preferred, especially in comparison to the early 19th century. The exaggerated figure of the Gibson girl required a swan-bill corset, which forced the bust forward and the hips backward. The Gibson girl’s large bust and hips indicate a vast change in ideal feminine figures over the course of the 19th century. Compare these two dresses, one from 1900 and the other from 1820:
The columnar silhouette and empire waistlines were popular until around the late 1820s, when the waistlines began to drop and cinch inward. In the 1860s, bell and hoop skirts were in fashion, creating a more exaggerated difference between the constrained, corsetted waist and the wide skirt. These cumbersome skirts fell out of favor in the 1870s and were replaced by bustles, maintaining a great difference between waist and hip ratio. By the late 1880s, the bustle moved completely to the back of the dress, so that it projected at nearly a 90-degree angle. The emphasis on the hips and breasts in the late 19th century, with lower necklines and the swan-bill corset-induced “S-curve,” suggests a more sexualized feminine ideal than the passionless purity of Victorian era femininity.
What was “new” about the Gibson girl was the set of ideals that she epitomized. The Gibson girl’s behavior is a departure from Victorian standards of femininity that focused on a woman’s submissiveness, timidity, purity, and suitability to the role of wife and mother. In contrast, the Gibson girl is educated and independent, and more daringly assertive, and even flirtacious, in her interactions with men. She is the glamorized and romanticized icon of the literary figure of the New Woman, depicted in novels like Henry James’ Daisy Miller and Grant Allen’s The Type-Writer Girl. The New Woman was unwilling to sacrifice herself and her pleasures, unlike her Victorian predecessor. The New Woman often had a job outside the home and was physically active (in some cases, engaging in the controversial pastime of bicycling–I will write a more detailed post on bicycles later on, but conservative society considered it an improper and dangerous sport for young women, and criticized bicycles as a public nuissance). She was quite different from the delicate woman prone to fainting and nervous fits so common in novels from earlier decades. However, the New Woman and the Gibson Girl are not interchangeable, despite their similarities. The New Woman was typically more politically active and more rebellious, while the Gibson Girl was more frivolous and less of a threat to the institution of marriage. Her boldness is attractive, but ultimately not as threatening as that of the New Woman. The Gibson girl is also part of the apotheosis of youth, which the New Woman does not always represent (the terms “girl” and “woman” imply this subtle difference). They offer different commentaries on an emerging concept of American womanhood, one that pushed against the cult of domesticity.
The Gibson Girl is a representative of high society, so some discussion of social class is essential in interpreting her role in the public imagination. In The Theory of the Leisure Class, Thorstein Veblen explains the changing gender roles in great detail, and in reference to economic status. Veblen posits that women’s exemption from labor is a form of conspicuous consumption; woman’s “work” is to display the economic prosperity of men, most often through their bodies. Earlier cultures, like the ancient Greeks, preferred “a robust, large-limbed woman” capable of physical labor because, while prosperous women were exempt from certain forms of labor, they still needed to perform the tasks of household drudgery (Veblen chapter 6). Slightly more advanced (but still pre-modern) societies idealized an “infirmly delicate, translucent, and hazardously slender” female form, which is achieved through devices like corsets and foot-binding (ibid.). Veblen summarizes that “In the course of economic development the ideal of beauty among the peoples of the Western culture has shifted from the woman of physical presence to the lady, and it is beginning to shift back again to the woman” (ibid). This is because “under the higher efficiency of modern industry, leisure in women is possible so far down the scale of reputability that it will no longer serve as a definitive mark of the highest pecuniary grade” (ibid). Later on, Veblen specifically addresses the New Woman, and like many male writers of the time, he is very critical:
In this “New-Woman” movement—as these blind and incoherent efforts to rehabilitate the woman’s pre-glacial standing have been named—there are at least two elements discernible, both of which are of an economic character. These two elements or motives are expressed by the double watchword, “Emancipation” and “Work.” (Veblen chapter 13)
He elaborates, “there is a demand, more or less serious, for emancipation from all relation of status, tutelage, or vicarious life” from upper-class women; they seek emancipation from uselessness, emancipation through work (ibid). Veblen claims that modern upper-class women’s purely vicarious lives are repulsive to the natural instincts toward work, and the New Woman is a reversion to a primitive form of human; she “belongs to a cultural stage that may be classed as possibly sub-human” (ibid). Veblen suggests that women’s return to work is evidence of social regression, even as it is a sign of economic progress. He also implies that women’s generally more “masculine” character in the present age is due to the effeteness of men, that is, the New Woman emerged in order to compensate for the effeminate character of the dandy. This was a common criticism against the New Woman; she was “an avant garde attacking marriage and reproduction,” associating with decadent dandies rather than austere and rugged men, and often rejecting the idea of marriage in favor of her own career and education (Showalter, “Introduction,” ix). New Woman fiction addressed women’s marital discontent and feelings of oppression in patriarchal society. The Gibson girl softens this threat to the institution of marriage in her constant reference to men as a romantic interest and her conformity to most standards of decency. Although she wears low-cut necklines and exhibits flirtacious behavior, she is not shocking or scandalous. Even though she challenges men intellectually, she is always in a socially acceptable situation– she certainly not experimenting with drugs like the narrator of Kate Chopin’s “The Egyptian Cigarette,” she is not overtly involved in the suffragette movement or rejecting marriage outright. However, the popularity of the Gibson girl and her challenges to patriarchal constraints on women’s behavior in society are important indicators of the changing concepts of femininity and gender roles in the United States through the 19th century.
Glasscock, Jessica. “Nineteenth-Century Silhouette and Support.” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of
Showalter, Elaine (ed). Daughters of Decadence: Women Writers of the Fin-De-Siecle. Rutgers, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1993.
Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class. Accessed through Project Gutenberg.
1900 dinner dress: http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/80096050
1820 ball gown: http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/80096826