Topless Creator Gernreich Dies : Fashion World Saw Him as Its Most Innovative

Times Fashion Editor

Rudi Gernreich, designer of the topless bathing suit, the thong, one of the earliest minis and many other fashion firsts, died Sunday of lung cancer. He was 62.

To his admirers he was a prophet--a seer with 20-20 fashion vision. To his detractors he also was a prophet--the oracle of ugly. To most of the people in the fashion industry, he was considered the most inventive designer of these times.

Gernreich died Sunday morning in the hospice care unit of Cedars Sinai Medical Center, where he had been for about a week. He was admitted to the hospital in mid-January, and his cancer was diagnosed.


The Los Angeles designer bared breasts, shaved heads and passed out guns in the name of fashion. His clothes were censured by the Vatican, denounced by the Kremlin, banned in Cannes and displayed at Expo ’70 in Japan. Although he probably was best known for his topless bathing suit of 1964, he had been recognized by the fashion world since the 1950s as the designer who freed women from the constraints of high fashion by creating young, often daring clothing that followed the natural form of the female body.

Along with London’s Mary Quant, he was one of the first designers to shorten skirts to mini-highs in the early 1960s. His other fashion firsts include the no-bra bra, the no-shape swimsuit, the little boy look, the thong bathing suit, evening gowns with built-in jewelry and clashing color combinations that were psychedelic before that term became commonplace. In a kind of pre-punk mode, he playfully cut holes in his dresses and bathing suits, and he brought wool jersey to swimsuits and such fabrics as vinyl and cellophane to high fashion.

“Like the once omnipresent Kilroy, ‘Gernreich was here'--first,” said Edith Locke, former editor of Mademoiselle magazine and presently an independent television producer and director.

The only child of Siegmund and Elisabeth Mueller Gernreich, Rudolf Gernreich was born in Vienna on Aug. 8, 1922. It was at a time when haute couture was at its peak, and the authoritarian state of chic was governed by a handful of French couturiers who convened twice a year to hand down their hemline edicts to an adoring aristocracy.

Gernreich got his first look at this world of high fashion as a child. His sanctuary from what he called the rigid militaristic atmosphere of school was the Vienna dress shop run by his aunt, Hedwig Mueller, and there he spent hours sketching her designs for Viennese society and learning as much as he could about fabrics.

At 12, his sketches were seen by an Austrian designer, Ladislaus Zcettel, who offered Gernreich an apprenticeship in London, but his mother thought he was too young to leave home. (Gernreich’s father, a hosiery manufacturer, died when the boy was 8.)

When Gernreich was 16, he and his mother fled Europe along with thousands of other Jewish refugees and escaped to California. He mastered the English language, and obtained American citizenship in 1943. Working after classes as an errand boy at advertising agencies, Gernreich attended Los Angeles City College from 1938 to 1941 and Los Angeles Art Center School in 1941-42.

As an art student at City College, Gernreich was close enough to Hollywood to be influenced by it.

Hated Movie World

“I was always on the fringes of the movie scene,” he once recalled. “At one time I worked in the publicity department of RKO Studios, and once I replaced a friend who was a sketch artist for Edith Head (the late costume designer). But I hated every minute of it. I didn’t fit in. The beginning of my career was monstrous.”

Ergo, a career shift. As the direct result of watching a performance by Martha Graham’s modern dance company, Gernreich dropped art and the movie studios in favor of dance and the theater.

While studying with Lester Horton, whom Gernreich described as “a kind of West Coast Martha Graham,” he became less interested in static details, the decorations of clothes, and more concerned with how they looked in motion.

“Before, I only considered the body from the neck to the knees, the part that was clothed. Dancing made me aware of what clothes do to the rest of the body--to the hands and feet and head,” he told The Times in 1969.

“I was never a great dancer but my six years with the company impressed me with the importance of clothes in motion, body freedom, rhythm, attitude, and gave me a chance to design costumes.”

Gernreich left the troupe in 1949, and for the next few years found designing jobs on the East and West Coasts. He soon found that the fashion industry wasn’t ready to accept his avant-garde ideas.

Said the designer about the fashion climate at that time: “Everyone with a degree of talent was motivated by a level of high taste and unquestioned loyalty to Paris. Dior, Fath, Balenciaga were gods--kings. You could not deviate from their look.”

In 1951, Gernreich met Walter Bass, a production man at a Los Angeles dress manufacturing firm, and an eight-year association began. Their firm, William Bass Inc., began with a line of loosely cut, tightly belted dresses that were sold by Jax, an up-and-coming Los Angeles boutique that featured fun, adventuresome clothes. Meanwhile, Gernreich’s reputation in the fashion world advanced steadily.

It was during these years that Gernreich started deflating bras and stripping swimsuits of their built-in life buoys. The designer’s first prototype for the nothing-inside-it-but-you swimsuit was produced in March, 1952. A black-and- white check wool jersey tank suit with no built-in bra, it was to earn him his first design citation--the American Sportswear Design Award given in 1956 by Sports Illustrated. The magazine dubbed the suit “the no-shape knitted sheath.”

Gernreich earned a special Coty award for bathing suit design in 1960, and the Coty American Fashion Critics Award in 1963, the latter citation causing one of the biggest ruckuses in fashion history. As a protest against Gernreich’s win, Norman Norell returned his Coty Hall of Fame Award, saying: “It no longer means a thing to me. . . . I saw a photograph of a suit of Rudi’s and one lapel of the jacket was a shawl and the other was notched--well!”

Three years later, after more Gernreich innovations such as adhesive skin tattoos for bikinis, chiffon see-through T-shirt dresses, and feather-printed matte jersey shifts, Norell recanted, saying: “He (Gernreich) has grown in talent. Today, I would go along with their giving him the top award.” Gernreich received a second Coty award that same year.

While Gernreich was perhaps most creative during these years, the one creation that made him famous overnight was his 1964 topless bathing suit. The designer recalled that it all started in September, 1962, when he predicted to Women’s Wear Daily that “bosoms will be uncovered in five years.”

“I’d gone so far with swim wear cutouts that I decided the body itself--including breasts--could become an integral part of the suit’s design,” he said. “Because of my WWD statement, people began to ask me if I really meant what I said. The more they asked, the more I began to feel right about the idea.”

Gernreich said it was Susanne Kirtland of Look magazine who finally egged him into it. “She was so determined to publicize it that I thought it would be terrible if someone else took my prediction and made it a reality,” the designer said. “I didn’t want to be scooped.”

“I realized it could ruin my career, put me right off the map, but my conviction that it was right and my fear of being preempted led me to say OK.”

The strapped suit that later made history appeared back-view in Look on June 2, 1964. It was photographed in the Bahamas on a prostitute. The designer later photographed the suit, front view, on his favorite model, Peggy Moffitt, and the pictures were released worldwide with explosive results.

Praised in some quarters, Gernreich was denounced by the Vatican, the Kremlin and many American clergymen. He received hundreds of letters, many threatening violence. But women bought the suit--marketed by such respectable establishments as New York’s B. Altman and Co. Eventually about 3,000 were sold.

“Funnily enough,” Gernreich said, “I think I had the best collection of my career during the fall of 1964, but because of the topless, my other clothes were hardly noticed.”

Gernreich swiftly followed his success with more controversial designs. On the request of brassiere manufacturer Irwin Roseman, the then vice president of Exquisite Form, he gave the world the No-Bra and then the No-Sides Bra, the No-Front Bra (cut low to go with slit-to-the-waist necklines) and the No-Back Bra. Then he put women into disco slips and baby dresses at night, hip-booted and sun-visored swim wear by day.

On June 30, 1967, Gernreich’s fashion art became major in the sense that he was elevated to the Fashion Hall Of Fame by the Coty American Fashion Critics. He received his honor later that year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Abandoning Convention

Although he continued to design in the 1970s, Gernreich’s growing disenchantment with the direction of fashion became more and more apparent. “Clothing will not be identified as either male or female,” he predicted. “Tomorrow’s woman will divest herself of jewelry and cosmetics and dress exactly like tomorrow’s man. The utility principle will allow us to take our minds off how we look and concentrate on really important matters.”

Gernreich’s “anti-fashion” stance continued through the 1970s, when he created some small shock waves by taking two totally shaved models to Expo ’70 in Japan and, the next year, by accessorizing models with guns, dog tags and combat boots.

His most recent innovations include built-in jewelry in evening gowns, the thong bathing suit, designer soups and “The Girl Next Door” bottomless suit.

“The only relevant issue now is freedom,” Gernreich told The Times earlier this year.

Funeral services will be private. In lieu of flowers, it was suggested that donations be made to the Hospice Care Unit at Cedars Sinai, to the Bella Lewitzsky Dance Gallery or to the ACLU Gay and Lesbian Chapter.