August 8, 1922 – Rudi Gernreich:
“Fashion will go out of fashion.”
Listen up, kids; I have a story to tell: A little gay Viennese Jewish boy named Rudi Gernreich fled Austria when he was 16 years old to escape those nasty Nazis.
Following the 1938 Anschluss, the Gernreichs, mother and son, made their way to Los Angeles. They survived on the traditional pastries that the mother baked, and the son would sell door-to-door.
Gernreich was enamored of dancer-choreographer Martha Graham. He wanted to dance and at 20-years-old his dream came true when he became a dancer with the famed Lester Horton Dance Company. In 1947, Gernreich danced with the great modern dance pioneer Bella Lewitzky when they were both members of Horton’s troupe. Beginning in the late 1960s, Lewitsky and Gernreich would become innovative collaborators in the world of dance; his remarkable costumes would become part of the set and part of the plot for her dances. Gernreich continued to collaborate with Lewitzky, designing sets and costumes for dances in to the 1980s.
More than six decades ago, Gernreich and his lover at the time, Harry Hay, formed The Mattachine Society, the very first Gay Rights group in the USA. Still, Gernreich could not bring himself to come out of the closet, which seems crazy when you consider that he was an important figure in the worlds of fashion and dance, not really the exclusive territory of straight guys. Now, in the 21st century, we can hardly imagine how difficult and dangerous it was to dare to be openly gay. You could lose your job, your friends and 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 both their names. Pucciani, 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.
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 and plastic in fashion. Along with his model-muse, Peggy Moffitt, he helped popularize androgyny in women’s fashion, putting men’s suits and hats on women, the first to design men’s underwear for women. He also gave us the first see-through clothing.
Gernreich was responsible for the first soft transparent bra, the “no bra” bra that torpedoed the torpedoes. He invented clothing based on leotards and tights. He used hardware such as zippers and dog leash clasps as decoration. He brought us the first designer jeans. Most famously, Gernreich designed the first thong bathing suit.
His innovations embraced the new concept of “lifestyle” with his soft bathing suits, thongs, body-clothes and tube dresses, in his unisex looks and his signature playful, witty look which celebrated the removal of restriction and conformity in life and clothing. Gernreich gave the world the notion that wearing a piece of clothing could bring a larger sense of freedom and liberation. It must have had something to do with his being gay, and of course being a dancer, that informed his vision of how a dressed body should float with ease in and around any situation.
I love the conceptualist fashions of the 1960s. It was High Art Fashion dressing up as theatre. Today, the stereotypical gay fashion has been appropriated by straight culture. Gay S&M gear, once an underground subculture, has gone mainstream. Slings are now a smart home décor accessory. In the 1960s and 1970s, Gernreich was very cutting edge, but today would he be cutting edge?
From graphic collections inspired by clowns and 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 and scandalous designs. In 1967, Time magazine put Gernreich on the cover and exclaimed:
“He is 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 unisex clothes. The pieces represented Gernreich’s vision of a future where nudity would be equated with freedom rather than gender or sexuality.
Gernreich was an early Gay Rights pioneer. I like to think of what he would have thought of our era with LGBTQ people fully represented in the media, with Marriage Equality in the USA, and with gender roles blurred.
He left this world too early, taken by that damn cancer in 1985. He was just 62 years old.
(Photos, Wikimedia Commons Willian Claxton, Fahey/Klein Gallery)