Threads Through Time-Gibson Girl

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Coat Owned by Rose O’Neill, around 1917
On loan from the Bonniebrook Historical Society, Walnut Shade, MO


Gibson Girl Doll, c.1915
Bisque head with kid body and bisque arms
Made by J.D. Kestner, Germany, on loan from a private collection


Gibson Girl Pillow, c. 1915
Original design, The Weaker Sex, by Charles Dana Gibson, Manufacturer unknown.
On loan from a private collection


Gibson Girl Camille Clifford, 1904-1910
Vintage postcard
On loan from a private collection


Rose O’Neill and the Gibson Girl

In the late 19th century, a new illustration craze swept the country. The Gibson Girl, created by Charles Dana Gibson, became the ideal American girl. She was upper middle class, fashionable, confident, mischievous, and popular. She also possessed a specific physical appearance. The Gibson Girl was slim, but was larger in the hips and bust; the exaggerated body proportions were achieved with a tight swan-bill corset. Her signature hair was romantically piled loosely on top of her head, and she was beautiful. Most importantly, she was not political. She was not a suffragette.

As the Gibson Girl grew in popularity, she was featured on a wide variety of merchandise, such as plates, screens, fans, pillow cases, spoons, and ashtrays; the most popular being the Gibson Girl doll.

Though the Gibson Girl has become an icon of early 20th century, not all women subscribed to this ideal of beauty and fashion. Artist Rose O’Neill, the creator of the Kewpie Doll and a suffragette in New York, had a different viewpoint.

Part of Rose O’Neill’s campaign for women’s rights included advocating for more comfortable and practical clothing for women. O’Neill wrote several articles on the subject. On the popular fashion of the time she wrote:

“And here we are to the point where I suddenly explain why, when
this modern woman is pretty, astonishing, chic, delightful, intriguing
to the imagination, she is not beautiful. No human shape can be
beautiful that does not bend in the middle.”

Good Houskeeping Magazine, March, 1911

O’Neill exemplified her fashion ideas with her own clothing, as seen in the coat on display. She created her own outfits that were free-flowing and loose, based on Greek tunics. In 1915, she judged a contest, the Polymuriel Prize Fund, for a design of a universal gown for women. The prize was $150. O’Neill set the parameters for the winning design. It was to encompass beauty, suitability to the wearer and occassion, and freedom of movement. Corsets were frowned upon. In an article announcing the competition in Omaha Sunday Bee Magazine (May 21, 1915), she stated, “When we are far from the burden of clothes as men are we may equal or even surpass them in great world achievements.”

Polymuriel Prize Article for the Omaha Daily Bee May 21 1915