Virginia Rappe, the real Vin-Fiz Girl?

In the late summer and autumn of 1913, Virginia Rappe was a member of a traveling fashion show variously called the “Promenade des Toilettes” or the “Tableaux des Vivantes”—literally “living pictures” or “models.” When the show opened at an Omaha’s Brandeis department store in September, Rappe had become a celebrity for a single dress, designed by Callot Souers of Paris, that caught the attention of the press.

“Most interest was centered around Miss Virginia Rappe, the beautiful New York girl,” a fashion reporter began.

Miss Rappe is one of the most beautiful young models who has appeared here. She has large limpid, dark eyes, with long black lashes and a wealth of black hair. Her face is well known over the entire country, as she has quite a reputation as a “movie star” with the Kinemacolor company of New York. She is also the original “Vin-Fiz” girl whose pictures in its advertisements have become so well known. Miss Rappe, as a movie star, has had many thrilling experiences and her greatest delight is motor racing. For this she wears a tight, mask-like cap, tight sweater and pantalettes made in one piece effect.[1]

According to the store’s manager at the time—recalling Rappe after her death— “women gasped as she appeared on stage.”[2] According to the Omaha Daily News, her gown was “of such a vivid yellow that it almost starts to turn green. The deep slash up the front is cut away to expose harem trousers in chiffon of the same vivid shade. To carry out the tango effect, Miss Rappe assumed a tango pose for the photographer and in promenading before the spectators gave some tango steps to the tune of the orchestra.”[3]

Helen Patterson (l) and Virginia Rappe (r) wearing her tango skirt in the Atlanta Constitution, 13 October 1913 (Newspapers.com)

The brief mentions about Kinemacolor, Vin-Fiz—and Rappe’s racing couture hint at the progress she had already made as fashion model, that she could market herself, and that she was what we call an “influencer” now. They also frame her in the cultural landscape of the time – a kind of recognition that has been largely overwritten

Kinemacolor was a British company that pioneered a patented method of color film technology and established a theater franchise in which to present its films. In March 1913, the company launched a series of fashion documentaries that originally promised to show a selected “novelty” by Parisienne designers through its theaters around the world. These evolved into the Kinemacolor Fashion Weeklies, which were filmed in the company’s New York studio. Thus, it could be said that Rappe had made her film debut as a model first before her arrival in Hollywood.

Vin-Fiz put Rappe’s face and figure on billboards to sell grape soda. Vin-Fiz was manufactured by Armour & Company, the meatpacking giant. The Chicago-based firm’s first attempt to gain a foothold in the beverage industry is now a footnote in the history of diversification. But Vin-Fiz’s first big advertising campaign was responsible for the first transcontinental flight, when the yachtsman and motorcycle racer, Calbraith Perry Rodgers attempted to win a $10,000 prize put up by William Randolph Hearst for the first flyer who could traverse the country in less than thirty days. While Rodgers failed to win the prize—he took too long, from September to November 1911—the lower wing of his Wright model B biplane, the “Vin Fiz Flyer,” was a billboard that thousands, perhaps millions of Americans saw during his historic flight and the exhibitions that followed. It was during one of the latter, in April 1912, that Rodgers crashed and died.

Rodgers had never been a spokesperson for Vin-Fiz in the modern sense. Armour, however, did contribute to that as well when the company engaged an advertising firm to create an image, a “Vin-Fiz girl,” who exemplified its product and the model for her was Virginia Rappe—not the journalist and aviatrix Harriet Quimby who has sometimes been identified as such. The Vin-Fiz billboard campaign of 1912 was in the planning stages before Rodgers’ death and was successful enough to be featured in the June 1913 issue of The Poster, an advertising trade magazine.

Rappe, Quimby, or composite? (Private collection)

Neither Rappe nor Quimby—who was strikingly beautiful herself—are mentioned by name, but the young woman chosen to be the Vin-Fiz Airship Girl was obviously a professional model who looked the part of an aviator and and evinced the attributes of a female pilot: “health, courage, vigor and staying qualities.” After looking at hundreds of drawings and illustrations, the design team was ready to give up when “we found the girl.” She was, according to the team leader, not “the imaginary creation of the artist, but a fine, healthy beautiful young woman in real life. We dressed her in an up-to-date correct air ship costume from head to toe. She was then in her element, for she is an athletic, refined, outdoor woman, that woman which today is the popular woman, the one admired by all. Her face beamed and her eyes just glistened, and in this feeling of happiness and joy she posed for a hundred of the most remarkable photographs ever taken, each one a perfect pose, each one exhilarating, buoyant and full of life and animation [. . .] and in a purple suit.” [4]

For a time, the American landscape, especially in the Midwest, featured large white and purple billboards along roads and railroad tracks used by passenger trains. Each bore a photograph of nine-foot-high Rappe enjoying a refreshing glass of Vin-Fiz—which, according to contemporary accounts, was an acquired taste.

The girl in the purple flight suit was either a coincidence or a deliberate reference to Quimby, who, in August 1911, became the first woman to earn an aviator’s license. Soon after her accomplishment, photographs appeared of her wearing her custom-made plum-colored satin flight suit, which she wore again in April 1912, when she became the first woman to fly the English Channel—on the same day that the sinking of the RMS Titanic occurred—forcing a tactful delay in the publicity she received a month later.

Harriet Quimby and her Bleriot monoplane (Smithsonian)

Her flight was neither underwritten by Armour nor was her Bleriot monoplane lettered with “The Ideal Grape Drink.” When she spoke to the press, Vin-Fiz was never mentioned. In her last interview, with the caricaturist Kate Carew for the New-York Tribune, published at the end of May, Quimby discussed her flight suit at length, right down to its insulation.[5] Neither woman brought up Vin-Fiz or its logo. Quimby did, however, describe the idol she wore for good luck. A few weeks later, on July 1, she and a passenger fell to their deaths in Boston Harbor during an airshow.

And what became of Vin Fiz? The soda never caught on and quickly disappeared from store shelves. The Vin Fiz Flyer, on the other hand, was acquired and restored by the Smithsonian Museum and is on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.

Vin-Fiz blotter card (Private collection)

[1] “Society Turns out in Force for Style Show at Brandeis,” Daily Bee [Omaha], 16 September 1913, 9.

[2] “Rappe Girl Once Protegee B. L. Danforth,” Argus News-Leader [Sioux City], 22 September 1921, 11.

[3] Qtd. in Ibid.

[4] A. de Montluzin, “The Origin of the Vin-Fiz Air-Ship Girl,” The Poster 3, no. 10 (June 1913), 18–19.

[5] “Kate Carew Flashes—in Mind—Through Air with Harriet Quimby,” New-York Tribune, 26 May 1912, II:1. Quimby described her flight suit as “plum,” whereas other accounts called it dark blue, a variation due to the way satin appears in sunlight. When asked about who underwrote her flights, she didn’t “explain whether her aviating is done under public or private enterprise.” Although her biographers assert that she was immediately signed by Armour to replace Rodgers, she shunned such exploitation and famously refused to race other women pilots. Had she lived and seen the Vin-Fiz character, she might have sued Armour. In fact, Quimby remained a journalist and even cast herself as a futurist, imagining that one day airplanes would carry up to 1,000 passengers and that two-seater aircraft would be as accessible to everyday Americans as the automobile. Much as the real Rappe has rendered many Arbuckle narratives problematic, so too those about Quimby, especially books written for young readers that celebrate her life and accomplishments. These hardly require any connection to Vin-Fiz, just correction, including one for her appearance—Quimby was a blonde, not brunette—and for the flight suit that Vin-Fiz more likely infringed and was a darker shade of purple.

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