The world knows Rudi Gernreich for his monokini. That image of his model-muse Peggy Moffitt, with her sleek, five-point Vidal Sassoon haircut in the topless bathing suit, was the shot seen around the world and a symbol of the freewheeling 1960s. Arguably America’s first contemporary fashion designer, he gave us miniskirts, pantsuits, and unisex clothing, as well as the thong.
What many do not associate with Gernreich, however, was his social activism. Ideas we take for granted—body freedom, androgeny, gender equality, and fluidity—were less part of conversation than they are today. For Gernreich, they were his core concerns and he used fashion as a vehicle for expression. As portrayed by “Fearless Fashion: Rudi Gernreich” at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, which features more than 80 of his bold, graphic designs as well as accessories and sketches, the designer was fearless in his thinking as well as his approach to fashion.
A Viennese émigré who arrived in Los Angeles at age 16 in 1938, Gernreich was fleeing anti-Semitism abroad. Upon settling stateside, he experienced homophobia, yet he found sanctuary studying dance in the racially integrated Lester Horton Dance Theater, where Alvin Ailey was later a student. Ergo, the duotard and swan costumes plus jumpsuits and caftans allowing for freedom of movement. The gay rights Mattachine Society also provided solace as did Los Angeles’s coterie of artists. Later, when Vietnam protests roiled the youth culture and hippies came on the scene, Gernreich studied these kids and made clothes that they might actually want to wear.
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Upon the designer’s death in 1985, his partner of more than three decades established the ACLU Rudi Gernreich-Oreste Pucciani Endowment Fund to support the fight for LGBT rights. “Fearless Fashion: Rudi Gernreich” runs through September 1, 2019.
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