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Gernreich, Rudolph ("Rudi")

GERNREICH, Rudolph ("Rudi")

(b. 9 August 1922 in Vienna, Austria; d. 21 April 1985 in Los Angeles, California), avant-garde fashion and costume designer, style setter, and creator of the monokini and no-bra bra.

Gernreich was the only child of Elizabeth Mueller and Siegmund Gernreich, a middle-class hosiery manufacturer in Vienna, Austria, who killed himself when Gernreich was eight years old. As a young boy, Gernreich spent his spare time in his aunt's upscale dress shop, where he sketched the elegant women's fashions and learned firsthand about fabric basics, French fashion, and good clothing design. Then in 1938, when he was sixteen, Gernreich's mother joined a stream of Jewish refugees who escaped to the United States and settled in California. Gernreich attended Los Angeles City College and Los Angeles Art Center School. After college (he never earned a degree), he joined the Lester Horton Company, a regional California dance troupe, where he danced and designed costumes. Gernreich felt that he lacked sufficient talent to become a first-rank dancer and began concentrating on designing costumes for the company. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1943.

His early experience as a dance costume designer had a decided effect on Gernreich's career as a fashion designer: "I became less interested in the static details, the decorations of clothes and more concerned with how they looked in motion," he said in an interview with the New York Times Magazine. He continued, "Dancers made me aware of what clothes did to the rest of the body, to the hands and feet and head." Between 1949 and 1951, Gernreich spent time in New York in an unsuccessful attempt to make a name as a designer. He moved back to California and started a business with Walter Bass called Jax, a store that featured simple, youthful clothes. Throughout the 1950s, he caught the eye of several fashion critics who praised his designs for their strong silhouettes and uncluttered surfaces. During the 1950s Gernreich designed shoes for the Ted Saval division of General Shoe Company, and from 1951 to 1959, swimsuits for Westwood Knitting Mills. His swimsuits were constructed without the bones and structure that were then commonly used, and he often featured sleek maillot tubes that fitted his aim to create clothing for active women. He also designed some costumes for theater. In 1959, ending his association with Bass and Westwood Knitting Mills, he opened a New York City showroom, G.R. Designs.

In 1960 Gernreich received his first fashion industry award, an honorable mention for swimwear design in the Coty American Fashion Critics competition. By 1962 fashion columnists in European fashion capitals such as Paris and London were referring to him as a major designer. His lines were now being carried in Henri Bendel and other high-end stores. In 1962 he took a Winnie award, the top honor in the Coty competition.

In the 1960s Gernreich became known as the United States' most radical designer. He showed jackets with one lapel notched, the other lapel rounded. He created boyish looks for women, faux horsehide garments, and safari suits. His designs could change drastically, showing models in girlish smocked dresses one season, and then in camouflage outfits accessorized with dog tags the next. He created the unisex look of interchangeable clothes such as caftans and bell-bottom trousers for men and women. Gernreich's collections often did not even present a single "look" for each season. In a 1966 show, one model wore a belted shirtwaist dress covering the knees, with padded bra, nylon stockings, and spiked heel pumps with gloves and a bag to match. The very next model appeared on the runway in a thigh-high mini of the same print with little heeled shoes.

Throughout his design career, Gernreich strove to free clothing from the restraints of haute couture Paris-style fashion and to give women nonrestrictive garments. Wool jersey and knits were favorite materials. Shift dresses, cutback shoulders, and halter necklines marked his less restrictive designs. He eliminated unnecessary linings and structures like shoulder pads, lightened the fabrics, and incorporated vibrant colors such as shocking pinks with orange, red, and purple, along with other nontraditional pairings. Hemlines inched above the knee, and a New YorkTimes review in 1961 noted that "kneecaps show … skirts swirl and ripple, clothes fall freely, touching the body only at the bosom." Style setters such as Jacqueline Kennedy were often seen wearing his garments.

Gernreich's two most notable 1960s designs were the monokini and the no-bra bra. Early in the decade the fashion world predicted that women would soon wear topless bathing suits. Gernreich wanted to be first, and brought out the monokini at his 1964 show. The monokini was a high-waisted, boy-leg black trunk with suspender straps that went over the shoulder, leaving the breasts exposed. Voices as diverse as L'Osservatore Romano in Italy and Izvestia in the Soviet Union condemned the monokini for its decadence and immorality. Most stores refused to carry it, and many of those that did were picketed or received bomb threats. Mayors and police chiefs of seaside communities warned that women wearing the suit would be arrested. Gernreich himself said that the monokini was an exaggerated social statement that had to do with setting women free and was surprised that his firm actually sold three thousand suits.

In 1965 Gernreich designed the no-bra bra for Exquisite Form, a lingerie company. The bra consisted of two cups of soft, transparent nylon attached to shoulder straps, with a narrow band of stretch fabric encircling the rib cage. The bra allowed breasts to look natural, freeing them from the highly constructed padding, boning, and topstitching that characterized bras of the era. In following years, he extended the line to include the no-front bra to accommodate slit-to-the-wait necklines, a no-side version worn with dresses with deep armholes, and the no-back bra, anchored around the waist rather than the rib cage. The no-bra bra became as well known as the monokini, a retail success that sold well in the United States and throughout Europe.

Not everyone was taken with Gernreich. When he received his Coty award in 1963, the designer Norman Norell returned his own award in protest. Norell later regretted his action, saying he was wrong and that Gernreich had grown in talent. John Fairchild, publisher of the influential Womens Wear Daily, criticized Gernreich's clothing as being badly constructed. Gernreich entered an agreement to produce a line for the department-store chain Montgomery Ward, thereby violating an unwritten fashion industry rule that real designers do not sell to chain stores.

Gernreich himself noted that his greatest contribution was designing clothes for young American women. "For three hundred years, the French woman dictated fashion. Now at last, the American woman is coming into fashion maturity," he said. Many of his original fashion concepts, such as the mini skirt and patterned stockings, are now commonplace fashions.

In 1968 Gernreich announced that he was taking a year off to relax. In fact, he confided to friends, he was growing disenchanted with the pressures of running a design business. Also, the dawning of an era of antiwar demonstrations, War on Hunger, and an antiestablishment social mood made outrageously expensive clothes seem out of place. Even so, Gernreich returned to work a year later and did continue to design clothing. Through the 1970s he also began working outside the clothing industry, designed furniture, quilts, and costumes for a dance troupe, as well as launching a fragrance and a line of gourmet soups. Gern-reich died of cancer. His homosexuality was not widely known, but he was survived by Oreste Pucciani, his partner since 1954.

Gernreich was widely celebrated during his lifetime. The museum at the New York State University Fashion Institute of Technology had a show of his work in 1967, and the Coty American Fashion Critics awarded him four times in 1960, 1963, 1966, and 1967. He was admitted to the Coty American Fashion Critics' Hall of Fame in 1967. He received industry awards from the Wool Knit Association (1960), and the Knitted Textile Association (1975). Gernreich was singled out for awards from retailers Neiman Marcus (1961) and Filene's (1966). He received a Special Tribute from the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 1985.

The Rudi Gernreich Book (1991) is a fashion biography of Gernreich written by his favorite model and close friend, Peggy Moffitt, with photography by William Claxton. There are lengthy sections about Gernreich in Joel Lobenthal, Radical Rags: Fashions of the Sixties (1990). For information about Gernreich at the height of his career, see Gloria Steinem, "Gernreich's Progress; or, Eve Unbound," New York Times Magazine (31 Jan. 1965). An obituary is in the New York Times (22 Apr. 1985).

William J. Maloney

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