The Gibson Girl

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:

Dinner dress

Ball gown

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.

Works cited:

Glasscock, Jessica. “Nineteenth-Century Silhouette and Support.” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of
Art, 2000

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.

Image sources:

1900 dinner dress: http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/80096050

1820 ball gown: http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/80096826

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Inventing Traditions: White Wedding

White has become an essential symbol of everything bridal, culminating, of course, in the requisite white wedding dress. Wearing white on one’s wedding day has been subsumed into a cultural narrative of timeless tradition; we associate the white gown as a symbol of the bride’s sexual purity before consummating her marriage, a color of hope and peace. In reality, the color white’s association with brides, and especially with the wedding gown, has much more to do with conspicuous consumption and spectacle than virginity. Renaissance wedding dresses were usually green, a symbol of fertility, and throughout the 18th and most of the 19th centuries, wedding dresses came in a wide variety of colors. Some were white, but it wasn’t the exclusively expected color for a bride to wear; purple, deep blue, brown, red, and gold were also popular colors. The white wedding first became a sensation, and was then quickly incorporated as a tradition rich with symbolism, with Queen Victoria’s 1840 nuptials.

Detail of George Hayter’s painting of Victoria and Albert’s wedding

Queen Victoria’s white gown and her attendants’ white formal attire sparked admiration and imitation in the upper classes; newspapers emphasized the elegance of the all-white wedding. The white formal wear of Victoria’s wedding was more of a show of extravagance White dresses were more obviously luxury items; dirt, stains and age show quickly on light, non-patterned fabrics. This trend would grow in popularity among the middle classes as mass-produced textiles lowered clothing prices. More brides could purchase ready-made white gowns from major retailers in the latter half of the 19th century, and so the white wedding gradually became the standard.

For most of the 19th century, the majority of American brides wore their Sunday best on their wedding day, a dress that was often worn several times throughout a woman’s life for special occasions. Early 19th century Americans typically had very few clothes, especially before the technology of the Industrial Revolution made cotton easier to harvest and spin, so a separate dress to wear on a single occasion was extremely impractical. Even by mid-century, the wedding dress was not worn exclusively for the wedding, and colored dresses were still very popular.

Wedding dress

1812 wedding dress

Wedding dress

1860 wedding dress

 

Wedding dress

1869 wedding dress

Clearly, the two dresses from the 1860s are much more elaborate and formal, even if one is darker in color. This reflects a change in the formality of the wedding ceremony. Several women’s magazine articles from the 1880s and 1890s are dedicated to creating elegant wedding decor (often including elaborate floral arrangements, intricately crocheted doilies, special lighting, and false walls to cover fireplaces and wood stoves). The purpose of these home decorative elements in the wedding were to remove the practical aspects of the home for the wedding. Early 19th century weddings usually took place in the church and included the entire congregation; exclusivity did not become an issue until home weddings grew in popularity in the postbellum era. This was a source of criticism and lamentation from the older generation that viewed these more private, but also more spectacular, ceremonies as excessive.  An extravagant and romanticized wedding day was seen as a mockery of the marriage vows’ solemnity and poor preparation for the drudgery of running a household, the impending possibility of childbirth, and the responsibilities that came with the change in social status. The elaborate scenery (most periodicals offer suggestions for transforming a parlor into a romantic “bower” complete with trees, copious amounts of flowers, fairy lights, and flower-studded netting to cover the walls) and the obviously luxurious dress intended for single use sharply separate the wedding day from the life into which the newlywed couple is entering. The white wedding is another step toward specialty and luxury, but was quickly incorporated into a narrative of purity and tradition, so that by the turn of the century, nearly all brides wore white, even poor brides. For example, William Dean Howells’ 1895 novella The Day of Their Wedding follows a Shaker couple who escape from their celibate community with the intent of eloping. They have virtually no money, but the young bride Althea is able to purchase a white dress.  Althea balks at the extravagance of purchasing a new dress strictly for the purpose of the ceremony, but her groom Lorenzo insists; he is well aware of the social standards and throughout the story, he convinces Althea to adhere to these expectations, in order to do things “right.” The white wedding was one of those assumed cultural standards to which all brides were expected to conform. Today, a non-white wedding dress is considered “alternative”; even Jessica Biel’s pale pink gown was seen as a daring and unique wedding gown choice, though such a color would have been commonplace in the 1820s. The mass-production and standardization of clothing through the late 19th century, compounded by the increasingly elaborate standard for wedding ceremonies, resulted in white being the one and only color for a bride.

Image sources:

Victoria painting: http://thedreamstress.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Victoria_and_Prince_Alberts_wedding.jpg

1812 wedding dress: http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/80013183

1860 wedding dress: http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/80035678

1869 wedding dress: http://www.metmuseum.org/collections/search-the-collections/80005673