Fearless Fashion: Rudi Gernreich
Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles
through September 1
“You can have anything you want in life if you dress for it.” ~ Edith Head
“In difficult times fashion is always outrageous.” ~ Elsa Schiaparelli
Written by Nancy Kay Turner
Rudi Gernreich was a fashion innovator and activist whose body of work looks anything but outdated even now. He will always be remembered for his shocking topless bathing suit for women, which was consistent with his desire to create gender fluid clothes that freed men to wear skirts and women to wear pants (and to take off their shirt freely, as men can do). It’s hard to remember now just how radical his ideas were because the early and mid-sixties were quite formal. Men still wore hats and women wore gloves. As a college student, I was forbidden from wearing pants by the strict dress code, even though I was an art major. Rudi Gernreich changed all of that and became the face (along with his favorite model Peggy Moffitt) of the unfolding cultural revolution of the mid to late nineteen sixties. The sixties were a turbulent time filled with assassinations, riots, political protests, the Vietnam War and The Stonewall riots. Lest we forget the incredible rapid pace of change, remember that the decade began with innocent songs like The Beatles “I Want to Hold your Hand” and ended with the hallucinogenic “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” in about seven short years. Music and fashion were both instrumental in fomenting this cataclysmic shift of values that resonates even today.
With this historically significant, exquisitely curated and beautifully installed exhibition, entitled Fearless Fashion: Rudi Gernreich, The Skirball Museum continues its excellent and socially relevant programming (the potent exhibit Black is Beautiful is still on display as well). By focusing not only on Gernreich’s innovative oeuvre, which was motivated by a passionate philosophy of freedom, but on the man himself and his social activism, this exhibit demonstrates just how prescient Gernreich really was.
The exhibit is divided into seven sections that examine his work, his life, his philosophy, his activism, his innovations and his legacy. It begins with his childhood and includes a precocious crayon drawing by the then 8 year-old Rudi of a woman with a wild bouffant hairdo, eyes burning with attitude in a pose we would now call “voguing.” His proclivity towards fashion was already apparent at that tender age. His family was forced to flee Vienna in 1938, when he was just 16 years old. Rudi encountered both anti-Semitism and homophobia in Los Angeles as well, but found refuge in the interracial Lester Horton Dance Company. The sense of theatricality and movement that he learned there became a hallmark of his style.
Gernreich incorporated the sparse aesthetics of Minimalism with his beige no-bra bra (a tiny little thing) and accompanying thong. He channeled his inner Mondrian with his blocks of color and black lines. His caftans from the mid-sixties were like Op Art canvases, filled with undulating checkerboard and/or striped patterns.
Peggy Moffitt wearing a Japanese inspired kimono with Bridget Riley wavy stripes running amok all over is a personal favorite of mine. His 1968 typeface ensemble is a cheeky long-sleeved turtleneck (soon to become very popular in the 1970’s) shirt, over tights patterned like a sheet of Letraset type in varying thicknesses and picas in stark black and white. His beige mini-dress with plastic cutouts was simple and quite elegant (and one could wear the no-bra bra under it.)
Gernreich somehow managed to create figure-hugging clothes for woman without sexualizing the female body as his designs focused on freedom of movement not sexual exploitation. Sly humor, playfulness and whimsy were always present, especially in the trompe l’oeil jumpsuit for women, which was a simple white jersey with a slight bell- bottoms. Two glaring black dots cover the breast and a black bikini is sewn on. It is disarmingly audacious. Though the clothes are in turns quirky, breathtakingly beautiful, simply elegant and yes, even funky, it is the emphasis on Gernreich’s activisim that is the star of this exhibition. Quotes of Rudi’s line the wall and give us the measure of the man. In 1966, Gernreich said: “Fashion is not expected to be a social message. A designer is not expected to say something other than ‘here is another dress’. But I would not be in this if that were the only thing required of me.”
From 1950-53, Gernreich became the second founding member of The Mattachine Society, which according to Harry Hay (the first founding member), was dedicated to “the dream of gay people awakened to their full historical potential.” Though Gernreich will always be remembered as the designer of the topless monokini, this exhibit shows us the depth of his passion for the arts, for equality and for social justice.