Having grown up in Los Angeles, diversity, culture, and style were the key constructs of my adolescence. With a plethora of museums, cultural centres, and vintage thrift shops, it’s no wonder the city of angels have won the reputation for being the style capital of the American West Coast. People from all walks of life, flock to this great city from all over the nation. The world of aspiring actors come to make something of themselves, or seek greener pastures.
LA, however, was not the candy-coloured fantasy people think it is today. The city, much like the rest of the country, has a dark past. This consists of decades of police brutality, racism, and conservatism. The story of a Jewish immigrant, Rudi Gernreich, challenged these beliefs in the country.
Introducing Rudi Genreich
Gernreich was one of the first founders and financial supporters of the Mattachine Society, one of the earliest gay rights organisations determined to protect and improve gay mens’ rights. He consciously pushed the boundaries of “acceptable” fashion. He utilised his designs as an opportunity to comment on social issues and to expand society’s perception of what is acceptable.
I discovered Gernreich during a visit to the Skirball Cultural Center in LA. Here, he was celebrated for his achievements in freeing the female body to portray its beauty for how it is. His exhibit, “Fearless Fashion” displayed his pieces which challenged the ideology of sexualising the female body. Further, he envisioned a future in which clothes would be unisex, as he believed that “fashion has no gender”. Because of his work, Gernreich faced much criticism from the Vatican, the Kremlin, American clergymen, and the traditional families that populated the American 1960s.
Many likened his work throughout his career to that of the popular Parisian fashion houses such as Dior, Balenciaga, and André Courrèges. Gernreich, however, detested this, and refused to showcase his designs in Paris. He wanted to build his career off of defeating the status quo and often broke many design rules.
What stood out most to me, was the duotard design he conceptualised. He created this fit for the Lewitzky Dance Company production ‘Inscape”. The design was purposefully designed in a way that allowed the two performers to move separately, but still limiting the distance between them. The design depicts Gernreich’s belief that men and women are more or less equals and can wear the same style of clothing without judgment.
His most notable work, the monokini, was definitely what generated the most fame for him. The monokini has been regarded today as anything resembling a “unikini” or “topless bikini”. Sports Illustrated described his work, as having “turned [a] dancer’s leotard into a swimsuit that frees the body. In the process, he has ripped out the boning and wiring that made American swimsuits seagoing corsets”. The monokini was often turned down by many models as it was seen as too provocative. They worried that agreeing to wear such clothing would jeopardise their careers. Relying on the monokini to break societal walls, Gernreich realised that the monokini was more than just a piece to design, it was his statement.
The Muse Behind Gernreich’s Work
Whether it’s Hubert de Givenchy with Audrey Hepburn or Jean Paul Gaultier and Madonna, every fashion great has its muse. Gernreich was no different. Although she may not be famous in pop culture spheres, Peggy Moffitt was Gernreich’s muse. Gernreich, Moffitt and her husband, were a trio that proved to be inseparable. Moffitt’s husband, William Claxton, photographed many of Gernreich’s designs worn by Moffitt. The collaboration worked perfectly as Gernreich’s outlandish designs helped mould the foundation for Moffitt’s signature look: heavy makeup with an asymmetrical haircut.
This look became iconic in the 1960s. Modelling the monokini, Moffitt was very hesitant, and still shows some remorse for having modelled it, to this day. Fifty years after having appeared on several magazine covers wearing the monokini, one cover showing her rear side, and another cover showing her bosom, Moffitt now reflects on the photographs.
Imagine having to spend the rest of your life talking about it. I think it’s a beautiful photograph, but oh, am I tired of talking about it.Peggy Moffitt
The Result of Controversial Designs
What Moffitt had faced for the past fifty years (and counting) was the unfortunate consequence of the controversial design. Gernreich had wanted to end the sexualisation of the female body and in essence, “freeing the nipple”. His dream was never fully accomplished. Many people struggle with body image issues due to inaccurate media portrayals of the human body. Modern technology has regretfully made this even more possible.
Rudi Gernreich built a dream that one day men and women can wear the same style clothes, and women can be free with their body and express themselves in ways they never were able to do before. But only part of this dream had been fulfilled. It is now up to society today to change its ways and better improve itself to become more fundamentally accepting of different body types, and learning to see beauty amongst diverse colours and sizes. These are merely just descriptors of what people see.
As Gernreich has said, “You are what you decide you want to be”. This had resonated in the hearts of many Americans who wanted to free themselves from societal oppression, and still serves as a reminder to many of us today, that all of us should not be defined by what “standard” is. Who we really are, our worth, our values, and our aspirations are what truly construct our inner being. These elements make us the better versions of ourselves. His ambition to liberate people from the prison that society can embody, is what makes him a quintessential Angeleno, and one of the most important contributors to fashion today.
Written by Miguel Peralta, Style Section Writer.