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“Fine Dignity, Picturesque Beauty, and Serious Purpose”:

The Reorientation of Suffrage Media in the Twentieth Century

Emily Scarbrough, Author

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Gibson Girl

Charles Dana Gibson was an American illustrator who developed popular advertising models in the mid-1890s that persisted into the 1920s. These Gibson Girls became the authority on American beauty. Gibson, inadvertently or not, defined American beauty by bombarding the American public with an idealized vision of how the American woman should look.

He created a female archetype that was beautiful, witty, aloof, but commanding. In many ways, the Gibson Girl was progressive. She took on the values of modernity, but also represented a very important shift in consumption. The Gibson Girl was invented as a marketing tool. She became a constant beauty upon which new, modern ready to wear clothes could be displayed upon. Gibson's cartoons appeared in Life, Collier's, Harper's Weekly, Scribner's, and even posters during World War IThe Gibson Girl was everywhere and every girl wanted to be her. Advertisements and cartoons like “Design for Wall Paper,” which appeared in Life in 1902, play with charm as well as beauty. Gibson girls were not only beautiful, but they often came with witty captions, like “suitable for a bachelor apartment.” Gibson's cartoons were often humorous

Gibson took inspiration from a number of models including the infamous Evelyn NesbitThe young model had the same dreamy eyes, pouty lips, womanly curves, and cascading curls that were trademarks of Gibson's illustrations. Nesbit was an actress who found herself in the middle of media storm when her husband murdered her lover and famous architect Stanford White. The so-called "Murder of the Century" marked one of America's first tabloid trials. The fascination with Nesbit's celebrity helps to illustrate the deep connection that Americans drew with their popular culture icons. The celebrity culture is also very deeply connected to the kind of consumerism that made Gibson Girls famous.

Gibson made a huge impact on American culture by creating a gauge by which beauty could be understood and measured. By creating a consumable, mass-produced vision of how American women should look, Gibson shaped American perceptions of beauty. Certainly, nineteenth century suffragists had not fit into this singular model of beauty, but twentieth century suffragists took inspiration from Gibson's iconography by creating a model of suffragists that very much aligned with this vision of beauty -- a vision which was highly approachable for the American public as they had lived with the impact of the Gibson Girl since the mid-1890s.

Nina Allender modified Gibson's media darlings by injecting the beautiful, young, bright women with a political message. The Allender girl was distinct from Gibson’s though, because the Gibson Girl’s existence was almost entirely defined by the way she interacted with men. Allender mimicked the beauty and humor of Gibson’s famed cartoons, but injected them with a spirit for reform. The Allender Girl maintained the image of the Gibson Girl, but with the message of the NWP.    

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