She’s back--the pale face, the cap of hair, the harlequin eyes, the mime poses in designer fashions. An icon of the ‘60s, here again thanks to the revival of “retro fashion.”
But wait: The clothes are the interest, aren’t they? The model, Peggy Moffitt, is wearing designs by the late Rudi Gernreich, whose Pop / Op / mini fashions defined the decade.
Actually, model and designer are inextricable, an image not just of fashion but of a unique association in the fashion world, in which she owed much to his talent, and he, indisputably, owed much to hers. It was an association that made Peggy Moffitt successful, although it worked against her later success.
Moffitt’s work with Gernreich demonstrates the art of modeling, too often a rather static enterprise. At its best, as when Moffitt showed Gernreich, design and model are parts of a whole. To echo Yeats, one can hardly “know the dancer from the dance"--a perfection that can grant some immortality but may keep the performer forever typecast.
Start with the designer, in this case a man once called the “quintessential American designer.” With his cutouts, his vinyl panels, his zippers, tunics and tights, his neon colors and geometric patterns, Rudi Gernreich was Pop, Op and Space Age. He designed for comfort and looks, working with knits, silks, reversible fabrics, in lengths both ultra-mini and flowing to the ground.
He made fashion “statements” about present and future, producing the first unstructured “no-bra” bra and the topless bathing suit and predicting unisex clothing. His designs had both humor and elegance, and were always different.
Though labeled the designer of the 1960s, “he wasn’t just a designer of that decade, but of our century, and the one coming up,” says Moffitt. “It’s just amazing the influence he has now, even among people who have no idea who they’re stealing from.”
Moffitt, too, was different. “In my era,” she says, posed in a chair in her Mediterranean-style living room high above Los Angeles, “almost all the models were blond and Scandinavian and tall"--and she wasn’t. She didn’t even think she was pretty, although she acquired enough confidence in the look she invented to stick to it these 30 years, comfortable with “how I dealt with the hand I was dealt.”
Hers was no story of being discovered, she says, “sitting in an airport at age 14 and someone coming up and saying, ‘You should be a model.’ But sometimes having a disadvantage turns out to be an advantage: I had to discover myself, an inner energy to make people look, a way to express that something different is happening here.”
What she had was a background in ballet and painting and an interest in “stylized things.” During high school years at L.A.'s Marlborough School, she sold clothes at the trendy Jax in Beverly Hills and then spent two years studying acting at New York’s Neighborhood Playhouse. When she came back, she was offered only parts as “the 10th in a line of squaws standing by a tepee.” In comparison, the world of fashion photography that she met through her husband, photographer William Claxton, “had a little chic.”
She entered a field more rigid than most. Models must have “looks,” and usually a particular look. One day it’s the Amazon, another day the waif or maybe the “individual” look (this on a recent magazine spread of eight similar-looking models).
“Our business is full of labels,” says Eileen Ford, co-founder of Ford Models Inc. A model needs “one particular look with a chameleon ability to change,” she says. “What makes a great model is energy, and not just physical.”
Moffitt had that. She also had ideas “about modeling, but it was a problem for me: People were threatened by that or uncomfortable.”
Furthermore, she had a methodology in “a profession that has no technique. Mostly it’s gone about with, ‘I’m pretty, here I am, take my picture.’ ” Moffitt’s view was that models must first draw attention, because they’re selling something, whether it’s clothes or magazines. Then, “in order to sell, you should entertain, and you have to educate, because very often what a model has to sell, the eye isn’t used to yet.”
Moffitt, now 55, met Gernreich when she was in her teens and he in his mid-30s, an established designer. “He was using big-boned country-club types, and thought I was too young for his clothes,” she says. But he hired Moffitt in 1962 to model a junior line. To Moffitt, modeling was a performance for which she prepared “like a method actor,” drawing on everything she had--dance, acting, mime. Unlike other models in a runway show, “who come out and walk all the same and look gorgeous, like Ziegfield girls, I’d walk knock-kneed and pigeon-toed if the dress demanded it. I’d look for the inner life of the dress, and when I did a whole collection, I’d figure out how to play each.” A photograph was just a different stage, “a piece of seamless white paper” on which to perform.
They worked together, off and on, for 20 years. It was a collaboration more than just an artist-model relationship, and they played, says Moffitt, a kind of “aesthetic Ping-Pong,” tossing ideas back and forth about presentation, construction, adornment, accessories.
It was a perfect fit, often including her husband as photographer. “Gernreich,” she says, “was writing the right play for the right actor, and Bill was recording it. Nobody had to mold anybody.”
The identification of one model with a designer has some precedence. Suzy Parker was associated with Chanel designs several decades ago, says Eileen Ford, and Audrey Hepburn was identified even more with Givenchy.
Indeed, Moffitt feels a kinship with Hepburn, both because of her own situation, and because Hepburn “was an actress who did some of her greatest work as a model.” But for all the image of Hepburn in Givenchy clothes, it was less exclusive than the image of Moffitt in Gernreich, and the relationship was not as binding.
Several times, in fact, Moffitt moved away. In the mid-'60s, she went to Europe to model for a few seasons, capitalizing on the sudden, explosive fame that came after she posed in Gernreich’s topless swimsuit in 1964.
Then she modeled in New York for a few years. But she thought the midi styles of the early ‘70s were trumped up, change for change’s sake. So in 1972, “I came back to work with Rudi again.”
It wasn’t all a matter of choice. Whatever she tried, she was Gernreich’s model, “a walking logo. I could put on a flour sack and people would think it was Gernreich.”
Unfortunately, there wasn’t a lot of Gernreich to show in the 1970s, and Moffitt spent most of the decade as a full-time mother to her son Christopher, now 19.
First Gernreich made a much-mocked prediction of future fashion in 1970, with male and female models (not Moffitt) who were shaved hairless and presented both nude and in unisex outfits. Then, as the fashion world shifted wholesale and insistently to midi and maxi lengths, he stopped making news, and by decade’s end, virtually stopped designing. In 1985, he died at age 62.
For better and worse, Moffitt’s career was tied to Gernreich’s. “Always in this country, I’ll be associated with Rudi, and part of me is very glad of that,” she says now. “The other part is, you’d occasionally like to do something for someone else.”
But perhaps not, or at least, no longer. Moffitt is sought out by people preparing retrospective shows of ‘60s fashion. She enjoys being recognized and stopped on the street, particularly now: “It used to be they’d say, ‘Oh, you’re the girl in that topless bathing suit.’ Now they say, ‘Aren’t you Peggy Moffitt?’ ”
In 1991, Moffitt and her husband brought out the art-size “Rudi Gernreich Book,” featuring mostly Moffitt in Gernreich clothing. And she’d like to create a line of clothing based on Gernreich designs, which she believes are “modern classics. They’re functional, witty and intelligent, not just fun clothes of the ‘60s.”
She still has a closetful, which she wears, and lots more packed away in boxes. What’s more, the model who helped make them famous is available.