From the Gibson girl to the flapper Essay

From the gibson girl to the flapper

            The Gibson girl and the flapper represent two distinct visions of American womanhood that reflected the realities of their respective eras.  The former, created in an era when women were making social and economic progress but had not yet attained full political freedom, was a mixture between Victorian propriety and modern independence, while the latter both celebrated and made fun of the liberated, assertive young American woman of the Jazz Age.

            The Gibson girl was late Victorian America’s idealized vision of womanhood, created by magazine artist Charles Dana Gibson.  Beautiful and proper-looking, the Gibson girl represented upper-class values and embodied attributes many men of the 1890s and early 1900s sought in a wife.  Despite her Victorian dress and somewhat patrician demeanor, the Gibson girl represented a transition to a new concept of a more assertive, independent womanhood.  In the late nineteenth century, the American popular media had depicted women primarily in domestic roles, as wives and mothers with little visible spirit or personality.  However, by the time the Gibson girl appeared, magazine illustrators like Alice Barber Stephens began showing women in new roles, reflecting the headway they were making in education and pursuing careers (Kitch 17-26).

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            The Gibson girl, who first appeared in Life magazine (which predated Henry Luce’s photo magazine) in 1890, was well-dressed and dignified, with ample upswept hair, floor-length dresses, and a clearly upper-class appearance.  Unlike earlier women in the popular media, she was more aloof, less knowable, and more powerful and independent as a result, yet still quite feminine.  For example, in Gibson’s drawing “The Eternal Question,” the girl’s head is shown in profile, with her long hair unfurled into a question mark, suggesting that the “New Woman” was unknowable and enigmatic, and thus less easily dominated.  Much more direct evidence of the Gibson girl’s power is “The Weaker Sex,” which shows four Gibson girls gathered around an insect-sized man, who begs for mercy while one woman inspects him with a magnifying glass and prepares to pin him like a gathered specimen (Kitch 42-43).

            In truth, though, women of that era were seldom very independent by later standards; many young single women were accompanied by chaperones and courtship was closely monitored, and many married women were at their husbands’ financial and legal mercy.  Gibson even took care to provide his creation with a beau, the “Gibson man,” a patrician-looking male as formidable and dignified as the Gibson girl.  Author Carolyn Kitch claims that the Gibson girl’s “freedom was superficial, a matter of style rather than substance” (Kitch 44).  Despite the steady progress women had made by the 1910s, they still lacked the independence and equality men enjoyed, and even Gibson himself eventually tired of his creation.

            After 1900, changes for American women accelerated, especially women’s increasing political activity.  American women had been politically active for decades, starting with the temperance and abolition movements, and after the Civil War, women activists entered the settlement house and suffrage movements.  Though by 1910 only Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and Idaho had given women the ballot, women’s vigorous campaigning accelerated in the 1910s, as the suffragists helped defeat anti-suffrage politicians, pressured both President Woodrow Wilson and Congress, and won the constitutional right to vote when the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1919 (Kleinberg 188-203).

            Also, women after 1900 were increasingly better educated and making inroads to professions formerly reserved for men only.  Between the Gibson girl’s heyday and the Progressive Era, women made greater inroads to higher education, the professions, greater political influence, and more social and economic independence.  As historian S. J. Kleinberg points out, the number of women in the American workforce grew steadily, from 19 percent in 1880 to 24 percent in 1920; the number of large cities varied between 26 and 50 percent (Kleinberg 105-106).  More importantly, women enrolled in universities at rates equaling those of men and entered the professions in steadily rising numbers (Kleinberg 152-162).  In the 1910s, they began attaining a more genuine and tangible kind of independence than the Gibson girl could have hoped to gain, and she was by then an outdated icon who represented the idea of independence, rather than the reality of it.

            The flapper of the 1920s was an entirely different character than the Gibson girl, who (despite her independence) did not seem to flout the strict standards of Victorian propriety.  Instead, flappers, supposedly named for how their limbs and short dresses moved when they danced, aroused both curiosity and condemnation, as popular depictions showed them drinking illegal liquor, wearing revealing clothing, bobbing their hair, and enjoying themselves in reckless ways once considered disreputable and which would be unthinkable for the Gibson girl (Kleinberg 242-243).

            The new female icon, created by illustrator John Held, Jr., differed sharply from the Gibson girl in most respects, though Gibson (who by 1920 owned Life) published Held’s work to keep up with social trends (Kitch 121-122).  Boyish-looking and brash instead of stately and dignified, the flapper was much more extroverted and rebellious.  This character aimed to represent single working women in their late teens and early twenties who lived with their middle-class parents, smoked, went on the town without chaperones, and exerted more control over their courtship and personal habits than women of the Gibson girl generation.  This independence stemmed from several factors, including women’s increasing economic freedom, more liberal attitudes toward sex and courtship, and the end of chaperones for single women courting or seeking entertainment in public.

            A 1926 Held illustration shows the two side-by-side, and the contrasts could hardly be more obvious; the flapper looks almost nothing like the Gibson girl and implies very different behaviors and social conditions.  The Gibson girl is more full-figured, dignified and almost regal in dress and bearing, and implies propriety and self-control but also hints at mischief and inscrutability.  The flapper, on the other hand, is thin and boyish-looking, with short-cropped hair, a skirt that ends just above the knee, a blouse that emphasizes her flat chest, and a cigarette in a long holder.  While this vision of womanhood was more assertive and attested to more liberated times, it was also a more complex commentary than the Gibson girl, an earnest depiction of the ideal turn-of-the-century female.  Instead, says Kitch, the flapper both celebrated and lampooned the new freedom for women by appearing reckless and somewhat silly.  Also, her boyish appearance was somewhat less risqué; despite the more revealing clothing, her gangly body is less sexually provocative and can purvey sexuality without breaching bounds of propriety (Kitch 131-132).

            Both the Gibson girl and the flapper are somewhat paradoxical figures, male creation that embody the contradictions that characterized women’s lives between 1890 and 1930.  The Gibson girl implied self-control and independence that did not yet completely exist.  The flapper, a product of the liberated post-suffrage era, represented the new freedom women enjoyed but was also a somewhat frivolous character, perhaps showing ambivalence about the social changes that these figures reflected.  In both cases, they represent distinctly male visions as shaped by social progress and the realities of changing gender relations.

SOURCES

Kitch, Carolyn.  The Girl on the Magazine Cover.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

Kleinberg, S. J.  Women in the United States 1830-1945.  New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1999.

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