Commentary : Retrospective Keeps Alive the Gernreich Genius for Controversy

Times Staff Writer

It has been 21 years since Rudi Gernreich devised the topless swimsuit, and still the controversy rages. The swimsuit has outlived Gernreich, who died April 21, and it will probably outlive everyone reading this, because it has been sealed in a time capsule (between a birth control pill and a Bible) that will not be exhumed for generations.

The controversy now is whether the topless will be shown on a model (live and bare breasted) at the Gernreich retrospective Aug. 13 at the Wiltern Theatre.

After a decade of topless barmaids, nude beachniks, sexually explicit films and centerfolds--not to mention a Pilobolus ballet performed at UCLA’s Royce Hall by male dancers without clothes--a moment’s look at a model with uncovered breasts could not be cause for chaos. Or could it?


It is. Members of the Los Angeles Fashion Group, who are producing the gala to benefit the Rudi Gernreich Design Scholarship Fund, cannot agree on how to show the 1964 suit.

Gernreich’s famous sooty-eyed model, Peggy Moffitt--who wore the suit for a photograph taken by her husband, William (Bill) Claxton, but never in a show--has said she will resign from the committee if the topless is modeled live on the Wiltern Theatre stage.

“Rudi did the suit as a social statement,” said Moffitt, who is creative director of the event.

“It was an exaggeration that had to do with setting women free,” she said. “It had nothing to do with display, and the minute someone wears it to show off her body, you’ve negated the entire principle of the thing. I modeled it for a photograph, which was eventually published around the world, because I believed in the fashion statement. Also, because the three of us--Rudi, Bill and I--felt that the photograph presented the statement accurately. I was offered $15,000 to let Playboy publish that photograph of me in the suit. I turned it down as unthinkable.”

Sarah Worman, vice president of Robinson’s and regional director of the Fashion Group, disagrees.

“I can’t believe this; it’s 1964 all over again,” she said. “I agree the suit was a social statement--the most prophetic ever made by any designer in the world. It was his most brilliant concept, and from it grew all sorts of things we now take for granted. Why take the single most important idea he ever had--the one that changed the way women dressed all over the Western world--and refuse to show it on a model, when we are showing everything else he ever did on live models?”

The irony of this controversy is, as it always was, that the surface of Gernreich’s genius is camouflaging the substance of it.

In the world of fashion, only a few designers anywhere can claim to have come up with anything original, much less anything original that lasts beyond their own life span. And Gernreich, the Viennese-born quintessential Californian, is at the top of the list.

Although widely revered by fashion insiders for his genius, he never really got the measure of public homage he deserved from the millions of women who directly benefited from his insights. Most who know his name associate it with the topless--and not with the idea behind it or the progress in women’s fashion that it spawned.

But Gernreich explained why he designed the suit: “Every girl I knew was offended by the dirty-little-boy attitude of the American male toward the American bosom. I was aware that the great masses of the world would find the topless shocking and immoral. I couldn’t help feel the implicit hypocrisy that made something in one culture immoral and in another perfectly acceptable.”

Artistic Statement

His topless was an artistic statement against women as sex objects, much as Picasso painted “Guernica” as a statement against war.

Whether he would have wanted it shown on a live model seems irrelevant. He would undoubtedly have appreciated public acknowledgment, at last, that his suit profoundly affected women’s way of dress.

From the topless concept he proceeded in his philosophic fashion meanderings to create the “no-bra” bra. It was the first soft, unconstructed, natural-fitting bra. And the two statements together signaled the end of American bosoms buttressed like bridges, the end of women trussed up like Christmas turkeys in undergarments designed to mold them, like plastic, into caricatures of the female form.

His no-bra was the prototype of all the contemporary bras on the market. And at the time, it saved the life of the American undergarment industry, which was faced with masses of rebellious women who would rather go braless than settle for the insulting harnesses they’d had to accept for years.

Both the no-bra and the topless were merely part of the design progression that had begun years before, when Gernreich marketed his women’s knit swimsuit without the usual built-in bra. With this, millions of women were freed to swim unfettered, an option men had always had. These innovations alone should have made him an original hero of the women’s movement and acknowledged as the most significant designer of his time.

It was from Gernreich’s whitewashed sanctuary in the Hollywood Hills, not from Paris or New York, that the most cerebral fashion developments of the ‘50s, ‘60s and early ‘70s came.

In 1953, Glamour magazine featured his knitted tube dress--the dress that instigated the knitwear trend in America, which crescendoed when almost every well-dressed woman in the country had at least one knit in her closet. Once into knits, Gernreich thought up the idea of combining different graphics on a single dress (checks with stripes, dots with squares), of putting bright, clashing, “California” colors together in a single outfit (pink with orange, blue with green).

He was the first to put matching patterned stockings with dresses and the first to endorse the opaque, brightly colored hose that are now commonplace.

Moffitt says she “modeled Gernreich’s first see-through blouse in L.A. at least three months before going to Paris where Yves Saint Laurent showed one and got credit for inventing it.”

In 1966, he shattered high-fashion precedent by signing an agreement with the popular-priced retailing chain Montgomery Ward. At the time, the store’s spokesman said: “Gernreich’s personal radar tells him the future is with the people.”

Actually, Gernreich’s whole life was with (and for) the people. He was not a money man. Any time a fortune was available for the price of a little dignity, Gernreich chose the dignity rather than the money.

He did only what he believed in.

Shocked the Establishment

Though Gernreich’s first see-through shirt shocked the Establishment, young women all around the country eventually wore one or another version of it. He put plastic on the fashion map and was an early proponent of mixing fabrics, like felt and cotton, in a single item.

In 1967, he made the cover of Time.

In 1970, he foresaw “a time ahead when women will . . . dress like men.” So he showed unisex clothes and concepts that included models with shaved heads and bodies.

In 1971, he introduced the idea of androgyny by showing tailored pantsuits with fedoras for women. And although Calvin Klein got the press (and the payoff) for coming out with Jockey-style briefs and boxer shorts for women in 1983, Gernreich showed them in 1976.

Also in 1971, he forecast the time when “authenticity” would be the keynote in clothing. A time when “comfort and good looks will derive more from the person than from the clothes. The clothes will be merely an instrument for the individual’s own body message.”

Prices must be kept down, he said, and conspicuous consumption must be ended. He called overpriced clothes “the hallmark of an inveterate vulgarity.”

In the 1970s, at the height of the designer-label syndrome, he predicted that “fashion anonymity would soon be prized, although a few insecure men and women may, for a while, continue to follow the dictates of a decaying design establishment.”

Gernreich apparently foresaw it all--but just a little bit too soon for the masses to understand what he was seeing.

Although he won every award in the book, and although his work is now undergoing a renaissance as ‘60s fashions enjoy a comeback, Gernreich remained a cult hero rather than a pop fashion superstar. He may have figured, however, that his time would come, even if he wasn’t around to enjoy it.

When his survivors went through Gernreich’s possessions, they found almost everything important he’d ever designed, each item accompanied by its accessories--right down to the pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes Moffitt carried in the belt of a 1971 military-style outfit.

The Fashion Group dinner and show is $250 per ticket; the show alone is $35, and student tickets are available for $10. Chairwoman for the event is Times Fashion Editor Marylou Luther. The executive committee includes Fred Hayman of Giorgio; Vidal Sassoon; Herb Fink of Theodore; Allen Questrom of Bullock’s; Michael Hecht of the Broadway; Judith K. Hofer of the May Co.; Michael Gould of Robinson’s; Sarah Worman of Robinson’s, and Barbara Trister of Barbara Trister Public Relations.