August 8, 1922– Do I have your attention boys & girls? This story is significant. This story is fabulous & this story is true. A little Viennese Jewish gay baby boy Rudi Gernreich was born this day. Little Rudi fled Austria when he was 16 years old to escape the Nazis. Following the 1938 Anschluss, the Gernreichs, mother & son, made their way to LA. They survived on the traditional pastries that his mother baked & the son would sell door to door.
Gernreich’s first job was working in a morgue washing cadavers for autopsy. Gernreich:
“I grew up overnight, I do smile sometimes when people tell me my clothes are so body-conscious I must have studied anatomy. You bet I studied anatomy.”
Gernreich was enamored of dancer-choreographer Martha Graham. At 20 years old he became a dancer with the Lester Horton Dance Company. In 1947, Gernreich danced with Bella Lewitzky when they were members of Horton’s troupe. Beginning in the late 1960s, Lewitsky & Gernreich would become innovative collaborators in the world of Modern Dance His remarkable costumes would become part of the set & part of the plot for her dances. Gernreich continued to collaborate with Lewitzky, designing sets & costumes for Pas De Bach (1977), Rituals (1979), Changes & Choices (1981), all of them danced by company member & my longtime friend, the beautiful dancer-choreographer Walter Kennedy, in his dancing prime.
60 years ago, Gernreich & his lover at the time, Harry Hay, formed The Mattachine Society, the very first Gay Rights group in the USA. Still, he could not come out of the closet, which seems crazy when you consider that he was an important figure in the worlds of fashion & dance, not really the territory of straight guys. Now in the 21st century we can hardly imagine how difficult & dangerous it was to be openly gay. You could lose your job, your friends & family, even your life. Gernreich did not actually come out until after his death when the estate with his partner of 31 years, Oreste Pucciani, provided an endowment for American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in their names. Pucciani was chairman of UCLA’s French Language Department, was instrumental in bringing Jean Paul Sartre to the attention of Americans. He was also a pivotal figure in the Gay Rights movement.
Hay & Gernreich are the main characters of the terrific play The Tempermentals by Jon Marans. It opened to rave reviews Off-Broadway in spring 2010, winning many awards including the Drama Desk Award for Best Ensemble Cast. Fantastic gay actor Michael Urie (who also has a birthday today) originated the role of Rudi Gernreich, & received a Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Lead Actor.
Gernreich’s most important influence came in the 1960s when he was the first designer to use cutouts in clothes. He was also the first to use vinyl & plastic in fashion. Along with his model-muse Peggy Moffitt, he helped popularize androgyny in women’s fashion, putting men’s suits & hats on women, the first to design men’s underwear for women. He designed the first see-through clothing. Gernreich designed the first soft transparent bra, the “no bra” bra that torpedoed the torpedoes. He invented clothing based on leotards & tights. He used hardware such as zippers, & dog leash clasps as decoration. He was responsible for the first designer jeans. Most famously, Gernreich designed the first thong bathing suit.
Gernreich spent most of his productive life entirely aware that clothes were ideas in material form. His innovations embraced the new concept of “lifestyle” in his soft bathing suits, thongs, body-clothes & tube dresses, in his unisex looks & his signature playful witty look which celebrated the removal of restriction & conformity. Gernreich gave the world the notion that a piece of clothing could embody a larger sense of freedom & liberation instead of restriction. It must have had something to do with his being gay, & of course being a dancer, that informed his vision of how a dressed body should float with ease in & around every situation.
I love the conceptualist fashions of the 1960s: High Art Fashion dressing up as theatre. Today, the stereotypical gay fashion has been appropriated by straight culture. The gay S&M clothing once an underground subculture has gone mainstream. Slings are a smart home decor accessory. In the 1960s & 1970s Gernreich was very cutting edge, but today would he be cutting edge?
From graphic collections inspired by clowns & Kabuki to his infamous “monokini”, the topless bathing suit he introduced to the world in 1964, Gernreich will always be famous for his avant-garde & scandalous designs. In 1967, Time magazine proclaimed Gernreich to be:
“The most way-out, far-ahead designer in the USA.”
Gernreich closed his own company in 1968, but he continued to design. In 1970, he produced one of his most conceptual collections, featuring barely-there, utilitarian clothes that were made to be unisex. The clothing represented Gernreich’s vision of a future where nudity would be equated with freedom, rather than gender or sexuality.
He continued to show controversial collections until he retired in 1981. Always adventurous, he embarked on a second career as a maker of a line of gourmet soups. Gernreich was an early Gay Rights pioneer. I like to think of what he would have thought of our era with LGBT people fully represented in the media & with full Marriage Equality in the USA, but he left this world early, taken by that damn cancer in 1985. He was just 62 years old.