Happy Sunday. I hope you had a great Thanksgiving. Ours was quiet, and actually involved not a single traditional Thanksgiving dish. No turkey, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, pumpkin or sweet potato pie. Not that we set out to purposely not do a “Turkey and all the trimmings dinner”, it just worked out that way. Still had fun.
I’m going to pause here to do a couple prayer requests. First for my friend Aja, whose father passed over the weekend, and for her niece who’s going through a lot right now. Her niece needs guidance, strength and peace. Lastly, keep my dad in prayer. He’s back in the hospital again with pneumonia. He’s responded well to treatment, though, and should be released back to the nursing home in the next day or so. Because he has a trach, he is highly susceptible to infections of this type. In a meeting with his team of doctors a couple of weeks ago, my stepmom was told they are planning to wean him off the trach. So prayers for his healing and improvement so that he will be free of it are much appreciated.
This week I stumbled back into a documentary rut, binging on old episodes of the PBS program “American Experience” available on YouTube. One of the first I watched was “1900” which gives a great (and rather thorough) snapshot of life at the turn of the 20th century. One segment briefly touched on “The Gibson Girl”, which according to Wikipedia:
…began appearing in the 1890s and was the personification of the feminine ideal of beauty portrayed by the satirical pen-and-ink illustrations of illustrator Charles Dana Gibson during a 20-year period that spanned the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in the United States and Canada. The artist saw his creation as representing the composite of “thousands of American girls.”
A Gibson Girl (Wikipedia)
While I had seen some of these images before, I never knew the story behind them. For more, here’s a story from Mental Floss, with the unfortunate title, “The Gibson Girls: The Kardashians of the Early 1900s”:
Though the 1890s may seem buttoned up by modern standards, they were anything but. Independent, well-read, and urbane, a new class of woman was emerging in America’s cities. This “New Woman” did not care to be chaperoned in public. She was athletic and free-spirited. Above all, she was educated, taking advantage of new access to secondary school and college.
She was also scary. By the 1890s, the reform fervor of suffragists and their sisters had ceased to be cute and started to be all too real. The status quo was being challenged by Progressive politics, new divorce laws, and women who chose to work outside the home. Charles Dana Gibson, a popular illustrator, looked down on reform zeal in women. And so he created “the Gibson girl,” a catch-all representation of a kinder, gentler New Woman—one who rode bikes, wore casual clothing, and flaunted her attitude, but was above all beautiful and anonymous.
By the 1910s, to visit Gibson’s office was to push your way through hundreds of gorgeous models with big hair and small waists, each vying for a go as one of Gibson’s girls. If ever there was a figure that expressed ambiguity about its subject, it was the Gibson Girl. Gibson’s creations poked men with pins and looked at them under magnifying glasses, towered over infatuated suitors, and even played golf—all while rocking gigantic pompadours and chignons, crisp shirtwaists and impeccably corseted hips. You wouldn’t see her at a settlement house or a suffrage rally, but you might spot her by the Ouija board or by the sea, working her hose and bathing costume with all of the self-conscious hauteur of a Kim K. selfie.
“Wear a blank expression/and a monumental curl/And walk with a bend in your back/Then they will call you a Gibson Girl.” Camille Clifford, a Belgian songbird, sang this tune with great irony in 1907, long after she won an international magazine contest in search of the woman who best embodied Gibson’s girl. Known for her 18-inch waist and her signature walk, she took the theatrical world by storm without benefit of acting skills or much more than the rumor that she had eloped with a British lord. She can also be blamed for the high-maintenance fashion craze that was the S-curve, an overtly sensuous look achieved by a corset laced nearly to the knees.
Gibson Girls: tons of hair, full bosoms, tiny waists, and not afraid to show some major elbow at the beach.
I have to pause here to comment on how much I love this drawing style. Kind of reminds me of parts of the “Cheers” opening theme. Second, let’s take a look at the “S-corset” (aka, the Edwardian corset), because I think those suckers were from one of Dante’s circles. Back to Wikipedia:
The straight-front corset, also known as the swan-bill corset, the S-bend corset or the health corset, was worn from circa 1900 to the early 1910s. Its name is derived from the very rigid, straight busk inserted in the center front of the corset. This corset forced the torso forward and made the hips jut out in back. The straight-front corset was popularized by Inez Gaches-Sarraute, a corsetiere with a degree in medicine. It was intended to be less injurious to wearers’ health than other corsets in that it exerted less pressure on the stomach area. However, any benefits to the stomach were more than counterbalanced by injury caused to the back due to the unnatural posture that it forced upon its wearer. At this time, the bust lowered and corsets provided much less support for the breasts. By ca. 1908 corsets began to fall from favor as the silhouette changed to a higher waistline and more naturalistic form. Early forms of brassieres were introduced and the girdle soon took the place of the corset which was more concerned with reducing the hips rather than the waist.
Check out an advertisement for one, via Wikipedia:
Hmm… maybe that comparison to the Kardashians is apt. Moving on, one of the biggest innovations of this time period was in motion pictures, which quickly morphed from small time curiosity to major million dollar money-making industry. As film took off, so of course did the actors, some who became history’s very first movie stars.
I purchased “Scandals of Classic Hollywood” by Anne Helen Peterson for the Kindle app on my iPad just this morning, and have already tore through the first couple of chapters (poor, poor Fatty Arbuckle). The first chapter is devoted to one Mary Pickford, arguably the first queen of Hollywood. An excerpt:
When the moving image first began to circulate in the late nineteenth century, it wasn’t as if stars suddenly popped up along with it. Audiences were mostly just fascinated with the technological marvel they saw before them— the moving image itself was the star. Even as cinema developed in the early 1900s, huge, unwieldy cameras made it difficult to film anything other than a full- length shot. Because viewers couldn’t see the actor’s face up close, it was difficult to develop the feelings of admiration or affection that we associate with film stars. Gradually, close- ups became more prevalent, various actors became more recognizable, fans began to know the stars’ names, and slowly but surely, audiences pieced together “types” associated with each star— the hero, the villain, the damsel in distress, the virtuous heroine.
It wasn’t until the early 1910s, however, that stars as we understand them today came to be: an actor with a recognizable type on- screen— a “picture personality”— accompanied by information about her off- screen, made available through the proliferating fan magazines. A star was the combination of her on- screen and off- screen selves— selves that complemented and amplified each other. An actor who played a cowboy on- screen would stable a horse just outside of Hollywood; a sporting heroine would fit in a game of golf between taking care of her children and cooking dinner. Crucially, these off- screen images were always squeaky clean. Women were married or seeking marriage; men were eligible bachelors or devoted husbands. Throughout the 1910s, these narratives served a distinct purpose: to make Hollywood seem less scandalous.
With her immaculate curls, plaintive eyes, and porcelain skin, Mary Pickford bore a keen resemblance to a child’s doll. And like a doll, she acted out the fantasies of others: her whimsical spirit and wholesomeness represented an American ideal under threat, proof positive that Victorian notions of girlhood and virtue could endure the onset of modernity. In this way, Mary Pickford became “a girl of all girls,” an exemplar of femininity and desexualized youth. She began her film career in 1909 at the age of seventeen, but played roles much younger, usually as adolescent and prepubescent daughters. In 1909 alone , Pickford appeared in fifty films; by 1915, her salary equaled that of the president. In the years to come, she’d continue to play young girls— most notably in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917), The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917), and Pollyanna (1920)— but she also worked, with mixed success, to sophisticate and texture her image. By the end of the 1910s, she was, without question, the biggest star in the world. Audiences just adored her.
Mary, head full of curls. How could she not be America’s sweetheart- even if she was born in Canada? (Source)
Coincidentally, during my docu-binge, I saw the American Experience about her. Here it is:
I find it fascinating how much the image of Pickford exemplified what American audiences clamored for in a leading lady. Innocent, doe-eyed, small, warm with long flowing locks. Even as the “Gibson Girl” look fell out of favor, Mary achieved a bobbed style by pinning her curls up. When she finally did shorn her locks, audiences rejected her new doo. It was like she got locked into the Silent Era, and when it became passe, so did she.
Speaking of the transition from Gibson Girl to Flapper, I found this video (part of a high school social studies lesson) to be an informative visual.
Coco Chanel- who else could turn pearls into a bad gal accessory? (Biography)
Thanks to the recent release of new biographies, I’ve been reading a lot about the controversial but much lauded life of Coco Chanel, who’s fashiondesigns pretty much ushered in the sleek, streamlined looks favored by the Flappers while simultaneously burying the corsetted finery of the Gibson Girls. From Biography:
Famed fashion designer Coco Chanel was born Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel on August 19, 1883, in Saumur, France. With her trademark suits and little black dresses, Coco Chanel created timeless designs that are still popular today. She herself became a much revered style icon known for her simple yet sophisticated outfits paired with great accessories, such as several strands of pearls. As Chanel once said,“luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury.”
Her early years, however, were anything but glamorous. After her mother’s death, Chanel was put in an orphanage by her father who worked as a peddler. She was raised by nuns who taught her how to sew—a skill that would lead to her life’s work. Her nickname came from another occupation entirely. During her brief career as a singer, Chanel performed in clubs in Vichy and Moulins where she was called “Coco.” Some say that the name comes from one of the songs she used to sing, and Chanel herself said that it was a “shortened version of cocotte, the French word for ‘kept woman,” according to an article in The Atlantic.
Around the age of 20, Chanel became involved with Etienne Balsan who offered to help her start a millinery business in Paris. She soon left him for one of his even wealthier friends, Arthur “Boy” Capel. Both men were instrumental in Chanel’s first fashion venture. Opening her first shop on Paris’s Rue Cambon in 1910, Chanel started out selling hats. She later added stores in Deauville and Biarritz and began making clothes. Her first taste of clothing success came from a dress she fashioned out of an old jersey on a chilly day. In response to the many people who asked about where she got the dress, she offered to make one for them. “My fortune is built on that old jersey that I’d put on because it was cold in Deauville,” she once told author Paul Morand. In the 1920s, Chanel took her thriving business to new heights. She launched her first perfume, Chanel No. 5, which was the first to feature a designer’s name. Perfume “is the unseen, unforgettable, ultimate accessory of fashion. . . . that heralds your arrival and prolongs your departure,” Chanel once explained. In 1925, she introduced the now legendary Chanel suit with collarless jacket and well-fitted skirt. Her designs were revolutionary for the time—borrowing elements of men’s wear and emphasizing comfort over the constraints of then-popular fashions.
She helped women say good-bye to the days of corsets and other confining garments. Another 1920s revolutionary design was Chanel’s little black dress. She took a color once associated with mourning and showed just how chic it could be for eveningwear.
Read it all and watch a short video on her here.
There are so many songs that I love from the 1920s, but I think George Gershwin’s classic “Rhapsody in Blue” is perfect for this post. It’s constant movement changes, the blending of classical music with jazz- well if that doesn’t scream societal shift, I don’t know what does. Have a great rest of the weekend, Folks.