Gibson Girl Was Unrivaled Number One
The point, perhaps is not so much that the ideal changes with mood, but that at no time in the last four or more decades had there been a single national ideal. Clara Bow, the "It" girl of the 20s, more nearly achieved it in her time, but she was by no means without rivals.
But, at the turn of the century (admittedly before the silver screen promoted such a proliferation of candidates), for the first and last time there was an unrivalled Number One: the Gibson Girl.
Irene Langhorne Gibson of Virginia was perhaps the last of the "Southern Belles." She was unquestionably America's first pinup.
The future Gibson Girl was born in Danville, a daughter of Col. and Mrs. Chiswell Dabney Langhorne. (One of her sisters was to become Lady Astor, the first woman to sit in Parliament.) Her father, scion of a once wealthy Lynchburg family, emerged from the Confederate Army at 21 with assets of one patched suit, one barrel of good whiskey and a bride, Nancy Witcher Keene of Danville.
Chiswell Langhorne failed to strike it rich as a Danville tobacco auctioneer. But in Richmond, where he had moved his family in 1885, he eventually landed a construction contract with the Chesapeake and Ohio through the good offices of his wartime commanding officer. From then on, Langhorne reaped a satisfying share from railroading. He bought Mirador, (pictured at left) an Abemarle County mansion, as a retreat from Richmond and as a showcase for his golden-haired, blue-eyed debutante daughter.
The fame of Irene Langhorne's beauty spread, and resulted in a profusion of invitations. She starred at the Philadelphia Assembly in 1893 and at New Orleans' Carnival German in 1894, whereupon Ward McAllister requested the honour of Irene Langhorne's presence to lead the grand march at the Patriarch Ball at Delmonico's in New York.
McAllister was New York's social arbiter (he restricted high society there to 400, the capacity of Mrs. Astor's ballroom); the Patriarch Ball was the social pinnacle of the Gay Nineties. Irene Langhorne was a white-satined triumph, and not unsurprisingly became entraced with New York. She returned for the Horse Show in 1895 and was even given a dinner at the scene of her previous year's triumph, Delmonico's.
Two close friends, young but already well-known bachelor's, came to dinner: Richard Harding Davis, a swashbuckling reporter and author of best-selling adventure novels, and Charles Dana Gibson, who often illustrated Davis' work. Gibson was gaining a reputation in his own right through his drawings for Scribner's and The Century.
Gibson had acquired plenty of self-confidence along with national recognition. Undeterred by the 66 marriage proposals Irene Langhorne was known to have already received, he went to Mirador and laid seige. After ingratiating himself with Chiswell Langhorne (who admitted that the damn yankee knew how to ride good horses and take care of the tack), Gibson issued an ultimatum. He was shortly off to Europe; he wanted Irene Langhorne to accompany him as his wife.
The Gibsons were married Nov. 7, 1895 in St. Paul's Church in Richmond. A private railroad car brought the New York guests. The new Jefferson hotel opened two days earlier than originally planned. The canopy outside the church was ripped to shreds by a crowd that pushed and shoved to get a glimpse of the bride and groom, and of Richard Harding Davis, who was an usher.
According to the Richmond Tribune, the bride's gown was of ivory satin with a high corsage of chiffon and satin sleeves. The shoulders and sleeves were festooned in Renaissance lace with orange blossoms at her left shoulder. The tulle veil was fastened by a crescent of diamonds, and her bouquet contained lillies of the valley and violets. The bridesmaids wore yellow taffeta gowns and black Gainsborough hats, and carried bouquets of yellow chrysanthemums.
A European described Irene Langhorne Gibson, as drawn by her husband, as a "tall and lovely woman with a magnificent head placed on a throat that was the envy of Aphrodite; the possessor of an exquisite mouth and an Italian Renaissance nose and eyes half hidden by mysterious lids, yet thoughtful and bright with a flash that told of a lurking temper."
With his wife as "premiere" model, Gibson's position in American art was assured. He set his enchantress in every walk of life; as a proud society beauty, then as a sweet, softly delineated housewife who nonetheless would venture from home for the tennis court or the bicycle path. He placed her behind the steering wheel of a car and in a (then) rather daring bathing suit at the seashore. The ideal American woman became no longer simply a housewife. Through his drawings Gibson gave American women his blessing to play almost any sport - if they did so gracefully. He approved of their entering any profession if they kept their dignity. As something of an after-thought he conceded them the vote as long as they were so adamant about getting it. (Irene Gibson as a Democratic National Committeewoman would work diligently for the election of Al Smith in 1928). But along with a campaign badge on the woman's blouse, Gibson would depict Cupid on a horse leading her to the polls.
The Gibson Girl became so popular in the early 1900s that everyone was talking and singing about her. Gibson Girl shoes, dresses and hats swept the nation. If she disappeared for over a week from magazines and newspapers, a universal cry would go up, and shortly she would reappear.
"Gibson has drawn the true American girl," the New York World editorialized during Irene Gibson's heyday. "Before Gibson synthetized his ideal woman, the American girl was vague, nondescript, inchoate; there was no type to her to which one could point and say, 'That is the typical American girl.' As soon as the world saw Gibson's ideal, it bowed down in adoration, saying, 'Lo, at last the typical American girl.' Not only did the susceptible American men acknowledge her their queen, but the girls themselves held her as their portrait and strove to live up to the likeness. Thus did nature follow in the footsteps of art, and thus did the Gibson Girl become legion, and the world take her to its heart as the type of American womanhood."
The Gibson Girl remained enthroned until World War I, which brought an end to the Indian summer of American serenity. The Gibson marriage, however, was long and serenely happy. Gibson headed the government's pictorial publicity division during the war and in the early 20s was editor of the old, or ptr-Time-Life, Life Magazine. He died in New York in 1944, and she in 1954 in her beloved Virginia, in a cottage on her son Langhorne's property near Mirador, which had been sold in 1950.
For those who admire perspective, cleaniliness of line and delicacy of shading, the Gibson Girl drawings remain a delight. For students of style, they may cyclically prefigure aspects of future modes.
But for social historians, they are worth some thousands of words. The accomplishment of Charles Dana and Irene Langhorne Gibson - which would have astounded him, at least - was to take America on the first step toward woman's liberation.
This article was first reproduced with permission of Viginia Country, Quarterly, Spring 1980, in the 1981 CFA Journal
The drawing of the Gibson Girl, entitled "The Debutante", by Charles Dana Gibson, and the picture of Mirador, from Charlottesville Area Real Estate web site
Irene Langhorne was the great great great granddaughter of James Callaway (1735-1809) of Bedford Co., Virginia. Her family line of descent is as follows:
Frances Callaway married James Steptoe
Frances Steptoe married Henry Scaisbrook Langhorne
John S. Langhorne
Irene Langhorne (1873 - 1954)
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