Ask Morgana 010: ‘The Gibson Girls’
Charles Dana Gibson (1867-1944) was an American graphic illustrator. His observations on and depictions of the manners and social situations of the bourgeoisie in the Eastern USA, at the turn of the 20th century, make him, almost, the Hogarth of that social stratum and era. Many of his subjects were women, but men were there too, usually reacting to the women! The drawing below uses the device of a courtroom jury made up of twelve women, varying in class, age, character, and arguably sexual orientation, to explore a range of facial expressions. I’m glad it does, because the subject of this ‘Ask Morgana’ is one where facial expression seems never to vary – more of that in a moment.
His most famous creation is of course the ‘Gibson Girl’, a young, beautiful, elegantly dressed, haughtily insouciant, American woman, whose sole purpose in life seems to be to attract the amorous attention of gentlemen young and old, but ultimately to remain a complete puzzle to them. I say ‘the’ Gibson Girl, but in fact they are a type and not a singleton, as you can see from the sketch below, in which four young women with almost-identical features, coiffure, and expression examine a kneeling, male supplicant under a magnifying glass. Perhaps you can see how this would strike a harmonic with a Dominante such as myself!
Is that not a knitting needle – a symbol of female domesticity – that the GG with the glass is using as a probe? The ‘Girls’ were always anonymous, giving absolutely nothing away by that slightly supercilious poker-face, and therefore there has always been speculation about who was the ‘original’. Gibson certainly had plenty of inspiration from close at hand. His wife, Irene Langhorne Gibson, was beautiful, and she had a bevy of sisters, equally beautiful. Irene, however, does not quite fit the image, as other photographs of her indicate; she had a dimple on her chin, and a stronger jawline and neck than the typical GG. Other candidates included Annabelle Moore (seen below in a pose atypical of a GG), and Evelyn Nesbitt. A ‘Miss Carlyle’ and a ‘Miss Clarke’ had themselves popularly portrayed as Gibson Girls, and I suspect that many other young women with certain looks and style did so too, on the back of the ‘original’. Most commentators agree that Gibson did not have a single life-model from which he created his young women, but that they were simply a social phenomenon in the circles in which he moved and in which he observed.
The popularity of the Gibson Girls faded after the Great War, as did so many things, but they are still iconic and recognisable. In their time they were typical figures, but also aspirational, setting a kind of standard for young Edwardian ladies to aim at.
Gibsonesque girls as a marketable commodity surfaced in surprising places. The advertisement below offers images of actresses Maxine Elliot and Julia Marlowe, both of whom have that distinctive air about them. Imagine falling asleep at night with your cheek pressed close to that of a Gibson Girl…