Richmond Story: the Gibson Girl

There’s a good chance you’re reading this right now in sweatpants. If you feel any shame in the frumpiness that has defined 2020, you’ll likely feel better after considering other eras in fashion history that were not so comfy. One punishing fashion in particular—the Gibson Girl look—has its roots in Richmond history.

In the 1890s and early 1900s, writers and culture-makers in America began to sell the idea of a “New Woman.” Post-Victorian, white, liberated, talented, educated, athletic, opinionated, politically-active, superior and stunningly beautiful, this new American woman infiltrated newspapers, magazines and advertising. She was the exact opposite of the pure and immobilized Southern Belle. She hiked, painted, played tennis, wrote serious poetry, played the violin, could hail a taxi and crack dry jokes. 

The New Woman trend did help to make real ambitious women acceptable and even fashionable in mainstream society. But what made the image so popular was not simply her superhero talents, but the fact that she could do this all effortlessly, while laced into a corset, balancing a top-heavy hairstyle and dragging a long skirt. At least the corseted, cinched-up Southern Belle wasn’t expected to climb mountains! Ironically, though she had shed bustles and hoopskirts, the liberated New Woman was still tightly bound to a very narrow visual ideal of beauty.   

Warning: there will be more ironic turns before this post is through.

Illustration from Everyday People, Charles Dana Gibson, 1904, V.72.109, The Valentine

The symbol of this ideal came to be called the Gibson Girl, named after Charles Dana Gibson, the illustrator from Massachusetts who is credited with creating her image in the early 1890s. Gibson’s illustrated women were wasp-waisted, with a big, flounced hairstyle that implied a hasty solution amid a flurry of activities. She often appeared bored and superior to her suitors and her surroundings, even the mountains she scaled. And all this—from her disdain to her sporting records—the Gibson Girl doled out with absolute grace.

 In what some scholars call the first American fashion craze, real women began to model themselves on the Gibson look, which in turn became a satirical cartoon of their ambitions. The floppy hair, the bored expression, and the impossible waist dominated American fashion for decades, until World War I.  But what real woman could possibly embody all that the fictional Gibson Girl represented?  Could a woman of such beauty, talent, brains, artistry, ambition, fitness, and grace possibly exist?

In another twist of irony and fate, Charles Dana Gibson himself found one. Her name was Irene Langhorne. She was from Richmond. And he married her.

Irene Langhorne was born in 1873, in Danville. Like many families in post-war Virginia, her family struggled financially. But Irene’s father eventually struck success in the railroad industry and he moved his family to Richmond. Here, Irene received the best private education available to girls at the time.

Irene Langhorne, Late 19th Century, P.71.47.61, The Valentine

With her poise, beauty and charm, she became popular among Virginia’s illustrious social circles. Of course, she dressed and cinched herself in the popular Gibson style. Then, Irene’s fame crossed state lines. In 1893, she was invited to lead the grand march at the Patriarch’s Ball in New York City—one of the most prestigious social events in the country at the time. She was the first Southern woman to do so. A year later, in 1894, she was seated next to Charles Dana Gibson at a dinner in New York. He had already gained notoriety with his Gibson Girl illustrations and now found himself sitting next to a woman who so closely resembled his fantasy. They were married in 1895 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in downtown Richmond.

The newly-wedded Gibsons moved to New York City, where Charles continued to draw with his wife as his main model. The woman who had fashioned herself after the style developed by her husband’s hand had now become a real life model for his future drawings. As for Irene, she dedicated herself to progressive politics—a fitting vocation for a New Woman. At first, she was simply acting out the ideal. As she admitted in late interviews, she first got into politics “for fun.” But she soon developed a true passion fighting for government aid for the underserved, especially children, and for politics. She helped to found Big Sisters, campaigned for women’s suffrage, built an orphanage, and chaired the Eastern Women’s Bureau of the Democratic National Committee. During the first World War, she worked with the Red Cross and was appointed by New York City’s mayor to chair the Committee on Local Defense. 

By the 1920s, the Gibson Girl look had been overtaken by the flapper craze—a loose style defined by its lack of corsets. Though critics labeled it a silly party-girl fashion, it was quite plainly a style that allowed more comfortable movement through the world. But Irene Langhorne Gibson and other successful women proved that the New Woman had outgrown the male fantasy as a mere fashion trend. She and others ensured that new generations of New Women were here to stay, no matter how they dressed—even if they wore sweatpants.