Born: Vienna, 8 August 1922. Immigrated to the United States, 1938, naturalized, 1943. Education: Studied at Los Angeles City College,
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Son of a hosiery manufacturer, born into an intellectual Viennese family in the 1920s, Rudi Gernreich was to become one of the most revolutionary designers of the 20th century. After fleeing the Nazis in the late 1930s he settled in Los Angeles, becoming an American citizen in 1943. Perhaps because of this geographic detachment from the centers of fashion and the fact that he refused to show in Paris, Gernreich is a name not spoken in the same breath as Balenciaga, Dior, or even Courréges, although Gernreich had just as much influence on women's appearance, especially during the 1960s and 1970s.
Gernreich studied dance before entering the world of fashion and, using as inspiration the practice clothes of dancers, particularly leotards and tights, he produced pared down body-clothes in the 1960s, aimed at what seemed to be the new woman of the era. To cater to this popular construction of femininity, Gernreich attempted to produce a new version of women's clothing, freed of all constraints.
Influenced by Bauhaus functionalism, Gernreich conceived a body-based dressing with coordinated underwear, celebrating the unfettered movement of the body based on his early involvement with Lester Horton's modern dance troupe. This interest in liberating the body from the limitations of clothing surfaced in his early swimwear designs of 1952 in which he eliminated the complicated boned and underpinned interior construction that had been obligatory in the 1950s. He revived the knitted swimsuit or "maillot" of the 1920s, which he elasticized to follow the shape of the body. These experiments were continued in his knitted tube dresses of 1953.
Gernreich was interested less in the details and decorations of clothes and more in how they looked in motion. In the 1950s he was designing relaxed, comfortable clothes fabricated out of wool, jersey, and other malleable materials, usually in solid colors or geometric shapes and checks. During the next decade he went on to use unusual fabrics and bold color disharmonies such as orange and blue or red and purple.
In the early 1960s Gernreich opened a Seventh Avenue showroom in New York where he showed his popular designs for Harmon knitwear and his own more expensive line of experimental garments. During the decade he acquired a reputation for being the most radical designer in America; his designs included the jacket with one notched and one rounded lapel, tuxedos made of white satin, and the topless bathing suit of 1964, which reflected the new vogue for topless sunbathing.
Gernreich's freeing of the breasts was a social statement, somehow part of the emancipation of women, and a portent of the unfettering of the breast by the women's movement in the 1970s. Gernreich invented the "no bra" bra in 1964, a soft nylon bra with no padding or boning in which breasts assumed their natural shape, rather than being molded into an aesthetic ideal. He went on to overtly display his sympathy for women's liberation with his 1971 collection of military safari clothes accessorized with dogtags and machine guns.
Gernreich was also responsible for developing the concept of unisex, believing that as women achieved more freedom in the 1960s, male dress would emerge from the aesthetic exile into which it had been cast in the 19th century. He conceived interchangeable clothes for men and women such as floor-length kaftans or white knit bell-bottomed trousers and matching black and white midriff tops, and even, in 1975, Y-front underwear for women. Other designs included the first chiffon t-shirt dress, see-through blouses, coordinated outfits of dresses, handbags, hats, and stockings, mini dresses inset with clear vinyl stripes, and the thong bathing suit, cut high to expose the buttocks. He experimented constantly with the potentials of different materials using cutouts, vinyl, and plastic, and mixing patterns such as checks with dots.
His clothing was part of a whole design philosophy which encompassed the designing of furniture, kitchen accessories, rugs, and quilts—even, in 1982, gourmet soups. His notion of freeing the body was taken to its logical extreme in his last design statement, the pubikini, which appeared in 1982, revealing the model's dyed and shaped pubic hair.