I read andrea bennett’s Hazlitt essay The In-Between Space a few days ago and I’m still thinking about it and thinking about my own gender expression. The visual style traits I connect most strongly to my gender are my long hair and my long dresses. In general, I dress in a style that might be called ‘modest’ in the fashion industry simply because most of my skin is covered up. The word ‘modest’ has a strange moral connotation to it, and always reminds me of when Mayim Bialik wrote that poorly-timed and poorly-worded op-ed for the New York Times urging women to stop being naive about how we sexualize our own bodies in service of the patriarchy, which literally has nothing to do with men who sexually assault women.
A few years ago, my partner’s mom (who is also my friend) called me a “Gibson Girl!” one morning when I came out of my bedroom in a floral housecoat and my hair piled on top of my head in a loose bun.
“What’s a Gibson Girl?!” I asked.
“Oh those girls from the early 1900s with the long hair piled up on their head in the voluminous pompadours,” she said. I could picture what she meant, and I filed it away as the name of the hairstyle, not thinking to wonder where it came from.
Then, a few months later, a student wrote about the Gibson Girls as part of her art project and I learned that it was not just a hairstyle but in fact was a whole fictionalized example of a woman, an ‘ideal woman,’ of how she should dress and behave and wear her hair and look. She was “created” by American graphic designer Charles Dana Gibson, who was “inspired” by his wife onto whom he projected this Gibson Girl’s aspirational figure.
People say now he created the Gibson Girl as an early form of opposition to the spectre of the New Woman, though Man Gibson seemed less frightened by the fact that women were reading more books and organizing politically and more frightened by the fact that they were cutting their hair short and hiding their figures.
My friend was right, I do have this long hair that I sometimes pile up on top of my head. And, I do…love myself a long-sleeved dress. But it certainly isn’t to comply to a male’s standard of appearance. Unless a male is going to appraise my mind or my sharp sense of style first, I’d actually prefer he not look at me at all!