Rudi Gernreich’s Fashion-Forward Thinking


Fashion designer Rudi Gernreich was constantly pushing boundaries and thinking outside the box in his vast body of work. His bravado and endless imagination challenged social norms of identity, beauty and gender during the height of his career in the ’60s and ’70s—and arguably his personal life influenced his professional one to be daring. Fearless Fashion: Rudi Gernreich, a new exhibit opening tomorrow on May 9, 2019 at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles presents a portrait of this fashion innovator including more than 80 outfits (like the topless swimsuit, the thong, unisex apparel and pantsuits) as well as photos, illustrations, and personal letters.

Curator Bethany Montagano tells CR: “His apparel welcomed everyone into the fold—regardless of race, religion, gender, sexuality, and body type—broadening the scope of who is ‘fashionable.’ We hope that visitors are inspired by Gernreich’s fearless fashions and his lifelong credo that style is about freedom and authenticity.”

Gernreich was born in 1922 to a Jewish family in Vienna, Austria, and endured a dramatic childhood: His father committed suicide when the designer was only eight years old. At age 16, Gernreich and his mother fled the German Anschluss (when Nazi Germany took over Austria) as Jewish refugees and settled in Los Angeles, California. During his first jobs, Gernreich learned directly about human anatomy: He cleaned corpses at a morgue to prepare them for autopsies. Later, he was a dancer and costume designer for a modern dance company. Although he never officially came out as a gay man—he thought it was apparent in his lifestyle—he was a founding member and financial backer of one of the earliest LGBTQ rights organizations in the United States, The Mattachine Society. Gernreich learned to use many of these life experiences to embolden him in fashion design.

He was called at a very young age to a deep understanding of what hatred can do when we lose sight of our common humanity,” explains Montagano “When he fled Vienna, he understood what freedom meant. And when he arrived in LA, he figured out what he would use that freedom for.”

Gernreich communicated how he felt about social issues through fashion. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Gernreich showed his support for second-wave feminism through styles that shifted the public’s thinking about women’s appearances. His designs also offered more options for womenswear. The Mini, Mods and Pantsuits part of the exhibit features his mod “micro mini” in addition to pantsuits which were not initially common during those decades.

His legacy remains linked to his scandalous “monokini” design—a topless one-piece that received harsh criticism from the Pope—and his long-time collaboration with iconic model, Peggy Moffitt. Additionally, the show highlights his swimsuit and undergarment designs, which also convey how he favored comfort over stiff, old-fashioned, traditional conventions. His wireless bras—his “no bra”—and thong underwear became popular and remain wardrobe basics today.

Moreover, Gernreich thought intelligently about design and in some ways, anticipated social needs light years before his peers and colleagues. In his Unisex Collection of 1970, the designer attempted to remove gender details in pieces that anyone could wear. He also experimented with materials: Gernreich employed leather, vinyl, dog leashes as belts, sheer cloths, and exposed zippers in his oeuvre. These elements all became accepted as details integrated in today’s garment construction.

“In many ways, Gernreich was ahead of his time. He was avant-garde and provocative in a medium that has always struggled to find acceptance as an art form,” Dani Killam, exhibition assistant curator, says. “Though his name is not as well-known as other fashion designers, his work has become a staple in today’s fashion landscape.”


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