August 8, 1922|
|Died||April 21, 1985
Los Angeles, California
|Alma mater||Los Angeles City College|
|Known for||Designer of the monokini
Avant-garde clothing designs
Early support of the Mattachine Society
|Partner(s)||Harry Hay (1950–1952)
Oreste Pucciani (1953–1985)
Rudi Gernreich (August 8, 1922 — April 21, 1985) was an Austrian-born American fashion designer and an early gay activist. He helped to fund the early activities of the Mattachine Society, introduced the single-piece topless monokini in 1964, and had a long, unconventional and trend-setting career as a fashion designer.
Gernreich was born in Vienna, Austria. His father was a stocking manufacturer who committed suicide when Gernreich was eight years old. Gernreich learned about feminine fashion in his aunt’s dress shop.
After the German Anschluss (the annexation of Austria to Nazi Germany) on March 12, 1938, Hitler, among many other acts, banned nudity. Austrian citizens were advocates of exercising nude, a rejection of the over-civilized world, which may have influenced Gernreich's later designs. His mother and Rudi escaped to the United States as Jewish refugees, settling in Los Angeles, California. Gernreich was very much against sexualization of the human body and the notion that the body was essentially shameful.
Initially, his mother survived by baking pastries that Rudi sold door-to-door. His first job was washing bodies before autopsy at the morgue of Cedars of Lebanon Hospital. He told Marylou Luther, “I grew up overnight. I do smile sometimes when people tell me my clothes are so body-conscious [that] I must have studied anatomy. You bet I studied anatomy.” He attended Los Angeles City College, where he studied art and apprenticed for a Seventh Avenue clothing manufacturer. He attended the Los Angeles Art Center School during 1941-1942.
Gernreich moved into fashion design via fabric design, and worked closely with model Peggy Moffitt and photographer William Claxton, pushing the boundaries of the "futuristic look" in clothing over the course of three decades. He was the sixth American designer to be elected to the Coty American Fashion Hall of Fame.
In 1942, he performed with Lester Horton's modern dance troupe. Gernreich said, "I never was a very good dancer ... I wanted to become a choreographer, but that never happened." He also designed costumes for the company until 1952, when he joined fellow Viennese immigrant Walter Bass and launched their first collection.
Gernreich moved into fashion design via fabric design, and worked closely with model Peggy Moffitt and photographer William Claxton for many years. He pioneered many avant-garde features in his designs. He was the first to use cutouts and vinyl and plastic in clothes. He Introduced androgyny—men's suits & hats, etc. on women. He designed the first see-through clothes. Rudi Gernreich designed the first soft transparent bra—the "no bra "bra. He invented body clothes based on leotards & tights. He used hardware such as zippers, and dog leash clasps as decoration. He did the first designer jeans. He designed the first thong bathing suit. He was the first to design men's underwear for women.
In 1942, he worked as a dancer and costume designer for Lester Horton Company. He left them in 1948 and became a fabric salesman for Hoffman Company and began designing his own line of clothes in Los Angeles and New York until 1951, when he became a designer for William Bass Inc. in Beverly Hills. In 1959 he was hired as the swimwear designer for Westwood Knitting Mills in Los Angeles. Genesco Corporation hired him as a shoe designer in 1959, which he continued until he founded his own firm GR Designs in Los Angeles in 1960. He changed his company's name to Rudi Gernreich Inc. in 1964. His designs were featured in what is generally regarded as the first fashion video, Basic Black: William Claxton w/ Peggy Moffitt”, in 1966, devoted to Gernreich's fashions. Gernreich was featured on the cover of Time in December 1967 with models Peggy Moffitt and Leon Bing. The magazine described him as "the most way-out, far-ahead designer in the U.S."
From 1970-1971 he designed furnishings for Fortress and Knoll International, and in 1975 he designed lingerie for Lily of France. The next year he worked on cosmetics for Redken and he also designed knitwear for Harmon Knitwear, kitchen accessories, ceramic bathroom accessories, and costumes for the Bella Lewitzky Dance Company. Gernreich continued to collaborate with Lewitzky, designing sets & costumes for Pas de Bach in 1977, Rituals in 1979, Changes & Choices in 1981, and Confines in 1982, all danced by the WCK3.
He was a strong advocate of unisex clothing, dressing male and female models in identical clothing and shaving their heads and bodies completely bald. Gernreich was also noted for his use of vinyl and plastic in clothes. He designed the Moonbase Alpha uniforms worn by the main characters of the 1970s British science-fiction television series Space: 1999., pushing the boundaries of the futuristic look in clothing over the course of three decades.
Gernreich developed a reputation as an avant-garde designer who broke many of the rules. He is perhaps most noted for his design of the first topless swimsuit, which he called the "monokini". The topless swimsuit ended around mid-torso and was supported by two straps between the breasts and around the neck. Gernreich conceived of it when at the end of 1963, Susanne Kirtland of Look called Gernreich and asked him to make the suit to accompany a trend story along futuristic lines. That month he first envisioned creating a topless swimsuit which he called a monokini.
He initially did not intend to produce the design commercially, but Kirtland urged him to make it available to the public. When the first photograph of the swimsuit modeled by Peggy Moffitt was published in Womens Wear Daily on June 4, 1962, it generated a great deal of controversy in the United States and internationally. Moffitt said the design was a logical evolution of Gernreich's avant-garde ideas in swimwear design as much as a scandalous symbol of the permissive society. He saw the swimsuit as a protest against repressive society.
In its December 1962 issue, Sports Illustrated remarked, "He has turned the dancer's leotard into a swimsuit that frees the body. In the process, he has ripped out the boning and wiring that made American swimsuits seagoing corsets."  He predicted that "bosom will be uncovered within five years." He saw baring of a woman's breasts as a form of freedom. He later designed the "pubikini"—a bikini with a window in front to reveal a woman's pubic hair.
In October 1964, Gernreich announced the "No-Bra", which was manufactured by Lily of France. The brassiere was made of sheer-stretch fabric without underwires or lining of any kind. It had a single metal clip used to fasten the bra in front. For Warner's, he designed the 1972 "No-Bra Bra", which was made of sheer, stretchy fabric, had no metal wires or clips, and could be pulled on over the head. It was a soft-cup, light-weight, seamless, sheer nylon tricot and elastic bra and came in sizes 32 to 36, A and B cups, manufactured by Exquisite Form.
Gernreich's no-bra was a big departure from the sculpted, bullet-shaped bosom of the previous decade. Featuring a soft, sheer cup, free of underwires and padding, the no-bra was quite similar to the original bra of the 20’s. Both the 20’s and the 60’s celebrated the stick-like figure of adolescence, and with that meant small, flat breasts. The original bra was nothing more exciting than two handkerchiefs attached to a band and tied around the chest. Gernreich’s no-bra was scarcely more advanced.
His minimalistic bra revolutionized brassiere design, initiating a trend toward more natural shapes and soft, sheer fabrics. In 1965 his company came out with the next design, a "no-side" bra. It had a narrow stretch band around the torso that allowed women to wear open-sleeved garments without displaying a bra band. The sheer cups were cut part of the bias and part of the half-bias. A "no-front" design had a plunging front between half-cups of sheer Spandex. Another design, the "no-back" bra, featured a contoured stretch-waistband that allowed a woman to wear a backless dress.
Rudi exhibited his fashion at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York in 1967, "Two Modern Artists of Dress: Elizabeth Hawes and Rudi Gernreich". A retrospective titled "Fashion Will Go Out of Fashion" was assembled in Kunstlerhaus Graz, Austria in 2000. In 2003, an exhibition of his work held at the Phoenix Art Museum, in Phoenix, Arizona, hailed him as one of the most original, prophetic and controversial American designers of the 1950s through to the 1970s.
He was named Sports Illustrated Designer of the Year in 1956, and won the Wool Knit Association award in 1960. In 1963, Gernreich won two major awards: in May he received Sports Illustrated's Sporting Look Award and in June he was awarded the Coty American Fashion Critics Award. The Coty Award stirred a controversy when the first recipient of the award, Norman Norell, gave his Coty Award back as a protest against Gernreich's recognition. On June 17, he told Women's Wear Daily, "It no longer means a thing to me. I can't bear to look at it anymore. I saw a photograph of a suit of Rudi's and one lapel of the jacket was shawl and the other was notched-Well!" He blamed the vote on "jury members from Glamour and Seventeen who don't get around to high fashion collections are responsible for the Gernreich vote." The department store Bonwit Teller ran a half-page ad in response with the headline: "Rudi Gernreich, we'd give you the Coty Award all over again!" He received the award again in 1963, 1966, and 1967.
Additional awards included the Neiman Marcus award, Dallas, 1961; Sporting Look award, 1963; Sunday Times International Fashion award, London, 1965; Filene's Design award, Boston, 1966; Knitted Textile Association award, 1975; Council of Fashion Designers of America Special Tribute, 1985.
Gernreich met Harry Hay in July 1950. The two became lovers, and Hay showed Gernreich his plan for a gay support organization, "The Call". Gernreich declared the document as "the most dangerous thing [he had] ever read". In 1951 Gernreich was convicted in a homosexual entrapment case. He was an enthusiastic financial supporter of the venture, although he did not lend his name to it, preferring to be known by the initial "R". Gernreich ended the relationship with Hay in 1952.
In 1953, Gernreich met Oreste Pucciani, chairman of the UCLA French department, who was a key figure in bringing Jean-Paul Sartre to the attention of American educators. Oreste Pucciani was also a pivotal figure in the gay rights movement. The two men kept their relationship private. Gernreich believed public acknowledgment of his homosexuality would negatively affect his fashion business.
Gernreich died in Los Angeles, California at the age of 62 from lung cancer.
In popular culture
In 2009, Gernreich and the Mattachine Society became the subjects of the play The Temperamentals by Jon Maran. After workshop performances in 2009, the play opened off-Broadway at New World Stages in February 2010. Actor Michael Urie, who performed the role of Gernreich, received a Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Lead Actor.
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- Kent State University Museum's Rudi Gernriech: BOLD Exhibition
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