Rudi Gernreich

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Rudi Gernreich
Rudi Gernreich.jpg
Born (1922-08-08)August 8, 1922
Vienna, Austria
Died April 21, 1985(1985-04-21) (aged 62)
Los Angeles, California
Alma mater Los Angeles City College
Occupation Fashion designer
Known for Designer of the monokini
Avant-garde clothing designs
Early supporter of the Mattachine Society
Partner(s) Harry Hay (1950–1952)
Oreste Pucciani (1953–1985)
Parent(s) Siegmund Gernreich and Elizabeth Lisl Müller

Rudi Gernreich (August 8, 1922 – April 21, 1985) was an Austrian-born American fashion designer whose avant-garde clothing designs are generally regarded as the most innovative and dynamic fashion of the 1960s. He was the first to use cutouts, vinyl, and plastic in clothing. He designed unisex clothing, the first swimsuit without a built-in bra, the minimalist, soft, transparent No-Bra, and the topless Monokini. He was a four-time recipient of the Coty American Fashion Critics Award. He produced what is regarded as the first fashion video, Basic Black: William Claxton w/ Peggy Moffitt”, in 1966. He had a long, unconventional, and trend-setting career in fashion design.

He was a founding member of and financially supported the early activities of the Mattachine Society. He consciously pushed the boundaries of acceptable fashion and used his designs as an opportunity to comment on social issues and to expand society's perception of what was acceptable.

Early years[edit]

Gernreich was the only child of Siegmund Gernreich and Elizabeth Lisl Müller, a Jewish couple[1] who lived in Vienna, Austria. His father was a stocking manufacturer who committed suicide when Gernreich was eight years old. Gernreich learned about high fashion from his aunt, Hedwig Müller, who owned a dress shop.[2][3] In his aunt's shop he spent many hours sketching her designs for Viennese high society and learned about fabrics. When he was 12, Austrian designer Ladislaus Zcettel saw his sketches and offered Gernreich a fashion apprenticeship in London, but his mother refused, believing her son was too young to leave home.[4]

Jewish refugee[edit]

After the German Anschluss (when Nazi Germany annexed Austria) 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.[5] 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.[6] Gernreich developed strong feelings about society's sexualization of the human body and disagreed with religious and social beliefs that the body was essentially shameful.[7]


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.”[2] He attended Los Angeles City College, where he studied art and apprenticed for a Seventh Avenue clothing manufacturer. He attended Los Angeles City College from 1938 to 1941 and the Los Angeles Art Center School from 1941 to 1942.[8][4]


He briefly worked in Hollywood costume design, but hated it.[4] In 1942, he danced with Lester Horton's modern dance troupe.[9] Gernreich said, "I never was a very good dancer... I wanted to become a choreographer, but that never happened." He left Lester Horton in 1948 and became a fabric salesman for Hoffman Company.

The fashion climate at that time was dictated by designers in Paris. Gernreich said, "Everyone with a degree of talent was motivated by a level of high taste and unquestioned loyalty to Paris. Dior, Fath, Balenciaga were gods—kings. You could not deviate from their look."[4] He began designing his own line of clothes in Los Angeles and New York until 1951, when he paired with fellow Viennese immigrant Walter Bass in Beverly Hills. They launched their firm William Bass Inc., and produced a collection of dresses that they sold to Jax, an emerging Los Angeles boutique that focused on fun, adventuresome clothes.[9]

He also designed costumes for Lester Horton until 1952. 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,[8][10][11] devoted to Gernreich's fashions.[2] 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."[12]

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.[citation needed]

Impact on fashion design[edit]

Gernreich moved into fashion design from fabric design. Gernreich developed a reputation as an avant-garde designer who broke many design rules. In 1952, he introduced the first swimsuit without a built-in bra.[13] 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".[14] He was regarded as the designer who free women from the limits of high fashion by creating vibrant, young, "often daring clothing that followed the natural form of the female body."[4]

Gernreich is regarded by some as the "most innovative and dynamic fashion designers of the 20th century."[15] In 1964, he created the first topless swimsuit, which he called the "monokini". Time magazine put him on the cover in December 1967 and described as “the most way-out, far-ahead designer in the U.S." Cynthia Amnéus, Chief Curator and Curator of Fashion and Textiles at the Cincinnati Art Museum in Ohio, said “Rudi was one of the most important and visionary American fashion designers of the 21st century... Rudi was doing very shocking and avant-garde things, like taking all the structure out of swimwear, and creating a trapeze dress in the 1950s way before Yves Saint Laurent did."[16]

He worked closely with model Peggy Moffitt and her husband and photographer William Claxton for many years, pushing the boundaries of the "futuristic look" in clothing over the course of three decades. His work paired minimalist designs with bright, psychedelic colors and strong geometric patterns, pushing the boundaries of contemporary women’s clothing. Moffitt increased the notoriety of his designs with avant-garde makeup and haircuts.[17]

He was the sixth American designer to be elected to the Coty American Fashion Hall of Fame. He designed the first see-through chiffon blouse, fashioned clothes from leotards and tights, decorated them with zippers and dog leash clasps, and introduced the idea of unisex clothing.[16] including men's suits and hats for women. He was the first to use cutouts, vinyl, and plastic in clothes and designed the first soft, transparent bra—the No-Bra.[18]

From 1970 to 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.[8] Gernreich continued to collaborate with Lewitzky, designing sets and costumes for Pas de Bach in 1977, Rituals in 1979, Changes & Choices in 1981, and Confines in 1982, all danced by the WCK3.[citation needed]


Main article: Monokini
This image of Peggy Moffitt modeling Gernreich's monokini was initially published in Women's Wear Daily on June 4, 1964.

Gernreich is most well-known for his design of the first topless swimsuit, which he called the "Monokini". Gernreich conceived the Monokini at the end of 1963, after Susanne Kirtland of Look called Gernreich and asked him to draw a suit to accompany a trend story along futuristic lines.[19] That month he first envisioned a topless swimsuit that became the Monokini.[14][20] The Monokini bottom was similar to a maillot swimsuit style but ended at mid-torso and was supported by two straps between the breasts and around the neck.

When Claxton's photograph of his wife Peggy Moffitt modeling the design was published in Women's Wear Daily on June 4, 1964, it generated a great deal of controversy in the United States and other countries. 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.[21] He saw the swimsuit as a protest against repressive society. He predicted that "bosom will be uncovered within five years". He saw baring of a woman's breasts as a form of freedom.[22]

He initially did not intend to produce the design commercially,[5][23] but Kirtland of Look urged him to make it available to the public. "I thought we'd sell only six or seven, but I decided to design it anyway." In January, 1965, he told Gloria Steinem in an interview that despite the criticism he'd do it again.[24]

A designer stands or falls on the totality of each year's collection, not just one item. At the moment, this topless business has done nothing but take away from my work, but in the end, I'm sure having my name known internationally will be a help. But that isn't why I'd do it again. I'd do it again because I think the topless, by overstating and exaggerating a new freedom of the body, will make the moderate, right degree of freedom more acceptable.[24]

He later designed the "pubikini"—a bikini bottom with a window in front that revealed the woman's mons pubis or pubic hair.[25]


Gernreich preferred that his designs should be worn braless,[26] and in October 1964, at the request the brassiere manufacturer Exquisite Form, Gernreich announced the "No-Bra ". The bra was made of sheer-stretch fabric without underwires or lining of any kind. 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.[27]

The No-Bra was a big departure from the sculpted, bullet-shaped bosom of the previous decade. It was quite similar to the original bra of the 1920s. Both the 1920s and the 1960s celebrated the stick-like figure of adolescence, and with that meant small, flat breasts. Gernreich's Mo Bra was little more than that.[28]

His minimalistic bra revolutionized brassiere design, initiating a trend toward more natural shapes and soft, sheer fabrics.[29][30] 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.[31]

Fashion as social commentary[edit]

Gernreich approached fashion as a social commentary. Editors of Life magazine asked him to envision clothes in the future for its January 1, 1970, issue, and he produced designs of minimalist, unisex garments that could be worn by either men or women. He said he wanted to create a "utility principle" that would "take our mind off how we look and concentrate on really important matters." Fashion writer Marylou Luther, who became a good friend of Gernreich, wrote that he had two motives in his designs: one was to create modern fashion "for the 20th century and beyond," and the other was as "a social commentator, who just happened to work in the medium of clothes."[3] Gernreich purposefully used his designs to advance his socio-political views. He wanted to reduce the stigma of a naked body, to “cure our society of its sex hang up,” as he put it. Gerreich stated, "To me, the only respect you can give to a woman is to make her a human being. A totally emancipated woman who is totally free."[16] Moffitt later said that the Monokini "was a political statement. It wasn't meant to be worn in public."[32]


Rudi exhibited his fashion at the Fashion Institute of Technology in 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.[8] 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.[8]

Awards and recognition[edit]

Gernreich received his first design award in 1956 from Sports Illustrated. They awarded him the American Sportswear Design Award for his design of a black-and-white check wool jersey tank suit with no built-in bra.[4] He 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.[9] 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. Norell 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." In response to Heller's protest, the Bonwit Teller department store ran a half-page ad with the headline: "Rudi Gernreich, we'd give you the Coty Award all over again!"[33] He received the award again in 1963, 1966, and 1967.[8]

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.[8] Marylou Luther, the Los Angeles Times fashion editor, wrote, "To most of the people in the fashion industry, he was considered the most inventive designer of these times."[4] On April 2, 2012, Time magazine named him to its list of the "All-TIME 100 Fashion Icons".[34] In 2000, the city of New York placing bronze plaques honoring American fashion designers, including Gernreich, along 7th Avenue.[35]

Later life[edit]

In his later life, Gernreich devoted himself to gourmet soups.[36] He is credited with a recipe for red-pepper soup, a cold soup served in red-pepper cases and garnished with caviar and lemon.[37]

Personal life[edit]

Members of the Mattachine Society in a rare group photograph. Pictured are Harry Hay (upper left), then (l-r) Konrad Stevens, Dale Jennings, Rudi Gernreich, Stan Witt, Bob Hull, Chuck Rowland (in glasses), Paul Bernard. Photo by James Gruber.

Gernreich met Harry Hay in July 1950, and the two became lovers. Hay showed Gernreich The Call,[38] a document outlining his plan for a gay support organization, which Gernreich declared the document as "the most dangerous thing [he had] ever read".[39] In 1951 Gernreich was convicted in a homosexual entrapment case.[citation needed]

He was a founding member of and an enthusiastic financial supporter of the Mattachine Society, though privately, preferring to be known by the initial "R".[40][41] Gernreich ended the relationship with Hay in 1952.[42]

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 as Gernreich believed public acknowledgment of his homosexuality would negatively affect his fashion business.[43]

Gernreich died in Los Angeles, California, at the age of 62 from lung cancer.

In popular culture[edit]

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.[44] Actor Michael Urie, who performed the role of Gernreich, received a Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Lead Actor.[45]


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