Rudi Gernreich, an American fashion designer, was born August 8, 1922 in Vienna, Austria and died in Los Angeles on April 21, 1985 at 65 years old. The designer was well known for his sometime scandalous and avante garde style. Rudi grew his fashion roots in the dress shop run by his Aunt, after his dress-maker father committed suicide when Gernreich was 8 years old.
He spent his free time sketching and learning all he could about fashion. By age 12, his designs were in the hands of Austrian designer Ladislaus Zcettel.
If Coco Chanel was known for changing the way people dressed in the beginning of the century, Rudi Gernreich will be forever remembered for changing it in the latter half. Rudi moved to Los Angeles at age 16 in 1938 as a Jewish Refugee. His first job in the United States was in a mortuary, he then spent several formative years as a professional dancer, providing him with a base of knowledge about how the body and clothing moved, which would serve him well in the 1950’s as a fashion pioneer and innovator, and later in the 1960’s as a household name.
Perhaps best known for his design of the topless swimsuit, dubbed the ‘monokini’, famously displayed by Peggy Moffitt, Gernreich was known for using fabrics and colors in unexpected ways that sometimes clashed, and doing away with the inner construction of bathing suits. He introduced a sort of androgyny to clothing styles (that is, women wearing styles generally thought of as ‘male’) for the first time.
The sexual liberation movement on display in the 1960’s was perhaps ushered along at the hands of fashion designers, including Gernreich, who made the skirts ‘mini’, and exposed more skin than ever before. The topless bathing suit was not the only breakthrough, Gernreich is also responsible for the “no-bra” design popularized at the beginning of the decidedly “anti-bra” 1960s.
Bra-burning would be common place by the end of the decade, but the “no-bra” eschewed form fitting, pointed bosoms for a sleeker design, intended to contain and secure rather than thrust and shelve, the practice since the modern bra debuted in the 1920’s. Time magazine noted that Gernreich was “the most way-out, far-ahead designer in the U.S.” in 1967.
In 1970 Rudi revealed a conceptual collection featuring a unisex design, and fabrics that were ‘barely there”. Gernreich was interested in the future of fashion, and calculated that in the future nudity would be equated with freedom and liberation, not sexuality. The designer continued to provoke the fashion world with new ideas until his retirement from fashion in 1981. He set out on one final career before his death in 1985, as a maker of gourmet soups.
Activism and Social Commentary His designs were replete with social commentary in and of themselves, but his brief and ultimately influential role in gay rights activism in the 1960s began (and ended) at UCLA. He co-founded the Mattachine Society, America’s first gay rights group, with his then partner Harry Hays. Although his relationship with the group, and Hays, only lasted a short time, it was critical to the group’s success. After leaving the Mattachine Society, Gernreich never publicly acknowledged his sexuality again.