Focus On Fashion: Rudi Gernreich

by Raymond


Another of the great 60’s designers is probably one of the least known but certainly no less of an icon of the swinging 60’s, Rudi Gernreich. 

Rudi Gernreich was born on August 8, 1922 in Vienna Austria. He was the son of a hosiery manufacturer, and came from an intellectual Viennese family. He fled the Nazis with his parents in the late 1930s and the family settled in Los Angeles. He became an American citizen in 1943. He would become one of the most revolutionary designers of the 20th century.

Gernreich studied dance and was a member of  Lester Horton's modern dance troupe before entering the world of fashion. He moved into fashion design via fabric design, and worked closely with model Peggy Moffitt and photographer William Claxton. He would push the boundaries of "the futuristic look" in clothing over three decades and, using a dancers practice clothes as inspiration, particularly leotards and tights, he produced pared down body-clothes in the 1960s.


Gernreich celebrated the unencumbered movement of the body and conceived  body-based dressing with coordinated underwear. This interest in liberating the body surfaced in his early swimwear designs of 1952, in which he eliminated the complicated boned and underpinned interior construction. He revived the knitted swimsuit of the 1920s, which he then elasticized to follow the shape of the body. He continued experimenting with these knitted designs with his knitted tube dresses of 1953.

Gernreich was interested less in the details and decorations of clothes and more in how they looked in motion. By the 1950s he was designing relaxed, comfortable clothes made of wool, jersey and other stretchable fabrics, usually in solids or geometric shapes and checks. During the 1960s he went on to use unusual fabrics and bold color combinations such as orange and blue or red and purple.

In the early 1960s Gernreich opened a Seventh Avenue showroom in New York where he showed his popular designs for Harmon knitwear and his own more expensive line of experimental garments. During the 60s he acquired a reputation for being the most radical designer in America.  He is most notorious for inventing the first topless swimsuit, or monokini, as well as the pubikini (a bikini with a window in front to reveal the woman's pubic hair) and later the thong swimsuit. He also advocated unisex clothing, dressing male and female models in identical clothing and shaving their heads and bodies completely bald. He was known as the first designer to use vinyl and plastic in clothes, and he designed the Moonbase Alpha uniforms on the television series Space: 1999.

Gernreich pioneered the concept of unisex clothing.  He conceived interchangeable clothes for men and women such as floor-length kaftans and white knit bell-bottomed trousers and matching black and white midriff tops, and even Y-front underwear for women. Other designs included the first chiffon t-shirt dress, see-through blouses, coordinated outfits of dresses, handbags, hats, and stockings, mini dresses inset with clear vinyl stripes, and the thong bathing suit, cut high to expose the buttocks. He experimented constantly with the potentials of different materials using cutouts, vinyl, and plastic, and mixing patterns such as checks with dots.

In 1972, he designed Warners'  "No-Bra Bra," which was made of sheer, stretchy fabric and had no metal wires or clips.  It was pulled on over the head.  Like most of Gernreich's creations, it created a brief stir and then quietly disappeared.

An exhibition of his work at the Phoenix Art Museum in 2003 hailed him as "one of the most original, prophetic and controversial American designers of the 1950s, '60s and '70s." Rudy Gernreich died on April 21, 1985.