When we think of fashion we think simply of clothing. Austrian born American designer Rudolph “Rudi” Gernreich’s designs pushed the world of fashion to think of a much bigger picture. Household names of every generation continue to embrace and explore fashion that goes beyond the traditional gender binary; the 2020s are on course to being remembered as the decade that unisex fashion officially peaked. But the history of unisex clothing design dates back quite a few decades, spearheaded particularly by designer Rudi Gernreich.
Gernreich purposefully used fashion design as a social statement to advance sexual freedom, producing clothes that flowed with the natural form of, most specifically, the female body, freeing them from the constraints of high fashion. He wanted to reduce the stigma of a naked body to “cure our society of its sex hang up.”
“People will try to say that I want to make women look masculine. To me, the only respect you can give to a woman is to make her a human being. A totally emancipated woman who is totally free .”
Rather than perpetuating the toxic ideology that high fashion continuously normalizes, which, as Gernreich saw it, “is simply a shameful sexualization of the human body,” Gernreich realized ‘you can say things with clothes.’ He presented himself fully encapsulated in the environment of the future: one in which people will accept their bodies. He said, “clothes will be utilitarian, organic, and minimal. It will free us to think of more important things.”
Born in Vienna in 1922, Rudi learned about high fashion and fabrics from his aunt, Hedwig Müller, who owned a dress shop. His deep understanding of the human form came from an unexpected source: preparing bodies for autopsy (his first job!!) His many hours sketching and creating early impressions of sexuality and self were cut short, fleeing persecution as a Jewish teenager from Hitler’s Austria in 1938. He arrived in Los Angeles at 16, where he would later be arrested and convicted in a police homosexual entrapment case, which was unfortunately common in Southern California at that time. This led to Gernreich becoming one of the founders and early supporters of one of the first gay rights organizations in the United States, the Mattachine Society. As a Jew, a homosexual, a foreigner, an artist, a fashion designer and even in his business approach, Gernreich was always the outsider.
Gernreich’s first foray into fashion design can be attributed to his time in the Lester Horton Modern Dance Company, where he was briefly a dancer and designer. Innovative and perhaps unconventional in the eyes of Hollywood, he took note of what clothes did to the body, a theme that would stay present in his later designs. The costumes he designed accented the body, while allowing freedom of movement in ways that gave the dancers costumes and silhouettes sculptural elements, liberating the body from the limitations of clothing.
In 1952, Gernreich introduced the first swimsuit without a built-in bra. Swimsuits during this time had stiff inner construction with boned linings, ultimately a seagoing corset. He eliminated the rigid silhouettes and wire constructions that shaped women’s clothes and undergarments. Gernreich’s mini dresses raised hemlines and his swimsuits allowed for a more natural and unisex look. Gernreich also introduced pantsuits, expanding the options for womenswear. These designs are common nowadays, but at the time were cause for massive backlash. Nevertheless, Gernreich yearned to create a unique style that would break the mold of the Paris fashion houses that dictated the latest style trends.
Gernreich also wanted to push back on high fashion that was unaffordable and used his designs as an opportunity to be heard in social issues, expanding society’s perception of what was acceptable. In 1966, he did just that and broke the unwritten rule that Big Name designers don’t sell in chain stores. On a roll with shocking the fashion community, he introduced the first topless bathing suit for women: The Monokini. The Monokini bottom was similar to a maillot swimsuit style but ended at mid-torso and was supported by two straps between the breasts and around the neck.
“A designer stands or falls on the totality of each year’s collection, not just one item. At the moment, this topless business has done nothing but take away from my work, but in the end, I’m sure having my name known internationally will be a help. But that isn’t why I’d do it again. I’d do it again because I think the topless, by overstating and exaggerating a new freedom of the body, will make the moderate, right degree of freedom more acceptable”
Taking home countless awards along with being showcased in multiple museums, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gernreich’s name and mindset will live on in perpetuity. In fact, in 1985, Tom Bradley, the Mayor of Los Angeles, proclaimed August 13 as ‘Rudi Gernreich Day’ in recognition of Gernreich’s contributions to fashion and to Los Angeles. He declared, “his designs were social commentary and forecast on our times and the future lifestyles of our nation.” Before Gernreich’s passing in 1985, he lived out the last of his time focusing on creating (nothing can prepare you for this one): gourmet soups! Much deserved after thirty years dedicated to reshaping and redefining the fashion community. (Find the link to his Cold Red Pepper Soup below!)
Rudi Gernreich writ himself into infamy by busting open some of the heaviest doors within the fashion industry, championing for women and queers specifically. And for that, we thank him.
We hope you’ve enjoyed learning about Rudi as much as we have!
Here’s the dress that sparked this journey of learning,
available for purchase at our Cambridge shop