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LOS ANGELES — Rudi Gernreich had a vision that society still hasn’t fully caught up to. A fashion designer who made waves in the 1960s and ’70s, Gernreich sought to wholly decouple clothing from the preconceived notions surrounding it. He removed stifling boning from swimsuits and bras to create pieces that were comfortable but still stylish, introducing the first swimsuit with a built-in bra. He worked extensively on clothes for the “wrong” gender or in unisex, making caftans, pantsuits for women, skirts for men, and more. Gernreich’s life and design philosophy are on display in the new exhibition Rudi Gernreich: Fearless Fashion at the Skirball Cultural Center.
The Skirball is an institution focused on Jewish-American history and culture, and Gernreich’s Jewish identity is inseparable from his philosophy. Born in Austria in 1922, he and his mother fled for the United States after Germany annexed Austria in 1938. In the US, however, the young Gernreich still struggled to feel accepted because of his homosexuality. For a time in the ’50s, he was a member of the Mattachine Society, one of the US’s earliest gay rights groups, as well as the lover of its founder, Harry Hay. Varying experiences of oppression shaped his conviction to break norms, devising clothing that was wearable, good looking, and made a statement.
Gernreich brought the libertine interwar European attitude he’d been raised in to the cultural upheaval of the ’60s. He wanted to decouple nudity from sexuality, and called the acceptance of nudity “a natural development growing out of all the loosening up, the re-evaluation of values that’s going on. There is now an honesty hangup, and part of this is not hiding the body — it stands for freedom.” To this end he invented the topless bathing suit, the “monokini,” which could be seen as an intermediary step to help people loosen up their ideas of proper bathing attire. It naturally caused an uproar at the time, though Gernreich strenuously denied any lascivious intent. The exhibition nods to the controversy by displaying one monokini-wearing mannequin with a “censored” bandeau over its breasts.
Gernreich experimented with making clothing as a political statement. One section of the exhibition presents a military-styled ensemble he created in protest of the Vietnam War. (Alongside it is a video of the original model speaking about how she thought that releasing the piece so soon after the Kent State massacre was ultimately in poor taste.) His thong designs (for both men and women) were a direct response to Los Angeles banning nude beaches in 1974. His work puts an entirely different spin on the idea of the personal being political, making the body itself into a statement.
Setting artistic and political impact aside, Gernreich made great headway in incorporating greater functionality into clothing without sacrificing style. A former dancer who also worked with different dance companies, he had an intuitive understanding for how to facilitate movement. This showed even in smaller ways; he had his models show either barefoot or in flats. (The exhibition reflects this in its specially made mannequins.)
Discussions around gender identity and presentation have only in recent years entered the cultural mainstream. We still trail behind what Rudi Gernreich pictured. The monokini was a strong statement that didn’t quite take off, and certainly didn’t pave the way for eventual social acceptance of nude swimming. In this climate, there’s been an increasing reassessment and new appreciation of Gernreich, of which this exhibition is only one facet. Who knows, though, how long it will take before the free-gender utopia he envisioned comes about.
Fearless Fashion: Rudi Gernreich continues at the Skirball Cultural Center (2701 N Sepulveda Blvd, Los Angeles) through September 1.