First appearing in published illustrations in the late 1800s, the Gibson girl was the creation of American artist Charles Dana Gibson (1867– 1944). Gibson's art depicted the fashionable upper-middle-class society of his time, particularly a certain type of modern young woman. Independent, athletic, and confident, the Gibson girl was also pretty and feminine, illustrating some of the contradictions of modern womanhood at the turn of the twentieth century. The Gibson girl was important for several reasons. She depicted the modern woman, known popularly as the "new woman," at a time when more women gained independence, began to work outside the home, and sought the right to vote and other rights. The Gibson girl had a real influence on the fashions of the time, as the illustrations were widely published and imitated from around 1890 until 1910.
As the 1900s began, society was changing rapidly. The Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century made manufactured goods more widely available and created more jobs. While poor women had always worked, more and more middle-class women began to work outside the home. By 1900 over five million women in the United States had jobs, and by 1910 the number had risen to seven-and-a-half million. These women needed fashions that would enable them to be more active. Between 1890 and 1910 styles became simpler and more practical. Skirts were long and flared, and dresses were tailored with high necks and close-fitting sleeves. The style was considered masculine, and this was sometimes emphasized by wearing a necktie. Though women still wore the restrictive undergarments known as corsets, a new health corset came into style that was said to be better for the spine than earlier corsets. An S-shaped figure became trendy, with a large bust and large hips, separated by a tiny, corseted waist. These styles, worn with confidence and poise by modern women, caught the eye of artist Charles Dana Gibson.
Gibson was born in Roxbury, Massachusetts. He trained as an artist and met some success selling his drawings while he was still a teenager. Gibson made a specialty of drawing society scenes. He was very observant, and his drawings always contained humor and insight about the world around him. Life magazine published much of Gibson's work. During the 1890s he used his wife, Irene Langhorne, as a model for a series of drawings of modern young women at work and at play, in all the latest, less-restrictive fashions. The Gibson girl was tall, athletic, and dignified. She might be pictured at a desk in a tailored shirtwaist or at a tennis party in an informal sports dress. She wore her long hair upswept in an elaborate mass of curls, perhaps topped by a simple straw hat. Though she was capable and independent, the Gibson girl was always beautiful and elegant.
Though the Gibson girl was American, she was soon widely imitated both in the United States and abroad. Women across all classes in society wanted to wear the fashions they saw in Gibson's drawings. Even men imitated the look of the broad-shouldered, mustached Gibson man who often accompanied the women in Gibson's work. The popularity of the Gibson look spread quickly, thanks to new national magazines that reached large numbers of readers. Newly developed businesses, such as Sears and Roebuck's mail order catalog and clothing pattern catalogs, also helped make it easier than ever for the average woman to gain access to the latest fashions.