A Belle Epoque Barbie

The Gibson Girl was a hottie who held her own with Kens


With her arched eyebrows, corseted waist and elaborate updo, the Gibson Girl could have come off as stiff. But in Charles Dana Gibson’s iconic illustrations, which graced the pages of Life, Scribner’s and other magazines at the turn of the 20th century, she was vivacious, athletic and smart. In “The Gibson Girl’s America,” running through Aug. 17 at the Library of Congress, you can see original drawings of Gibson’s namesake hiking, biking, playing violin and playing with men — all without ruffling a hair on her perfectly coiffed head.

“Gibson was really celebrating this new kind of woman who was vibrant and beautiful and involved in the world,” says curator Martha H. Kennedy.

At a time when many artists depicted emancipated women as mannish and unattractive, Gibson provided a more palatable vision of female empowerment. While you wouldn’t catch the Gibson Girl (or Gibson himself) marching with the suffragettes, she holds her own with men, especially in social situations. In the future, these American beauties might even serve on war counsels and beat men on the football field, predicted a series of illustrations Gibson inked for Life magazine in 1896.

By the start of World War I, the Gibson Girl had fallen out of fashion. She soon re-emerged in her most powerful guise yet — as a pert-nosed personification of America on war recruitment posters.

Can You Drive a Car? (left)
President Woodrow Wilson asked Gibson to help drum up popular support for America’s entry into World War I. Among Gibson’s creations was this 1917 recruitment poster for the American Ambulance Field Service, which carried wounded soldiers as well as munitions and supplies for the French armies. “In these posters, [the Gibson Girl] becomes a powerful, monumental, allegorical figure … fending off death and protecting a wounded soldier,” Kennedy notes.

The Weaker Sex, II (right)
This 1903 illustration for Collier’s Weekly provokes chuckles from gallery visitors once they realize the figure at the center is a tiny suitor. The poor guy seems seconds away from being pinned to the table like an insect specimen by four impassive women. “One of Gibson’s themes — and he treats it lightly, with humor — is that beautiful young women really do have the upper hand in courtship and marriage,” Kennedy says.

Library of Congress, 10 First St. SE; through Aug. 17, free; 202-707-8000. (Capitol South)
Sadie Dingfelder is a features writer for the Washington Post Express.
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