1922: A Mod Man (And Inventor of the Monokini) Is Born

Constantly morphing, from morgue to runway to soup - Rudi Gernreich changed the face of fashion forever.

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Rudi Gernreich: Fashion and supermarket soup would never be the same.
Rudi Gernreich: Fashion and supermarket soup would never be the same.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

August 8, 1922, is the birth date of Rudi Gernreich, the Viennese-born clothing designer whose minimalistic fashions epitomized American “mod” style of the 1960s. Gernreich may be best remembered for his topless “monokini” swimsuit and for his miniskirts, which changed the face of fashion forever.

Rudi Gernreich was born into a prosperous Jewish family in Vienna. His father, Siegmund Gernreich, was a stocking manufacturer who killed himself when his son was 8. Rudi learned about clothing from his aunt, who owned a women’s dress shop.

In 1938, after the Anschluss, Gernreich and his mother, Elisabeth, left Austria and settled in Los Angeles, California. Initially, Elisabeth Gernreich baked pastries that her son sold door-to-door. Later, he supported himself by working in the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital morgue, washing bodies of the deceased before autopsy. In an interview some years later, he observed that, “I do smile sometimes when people tell me my clothes are so body-conscious I must have studied anatomy. You bet I studied anatomy.”

Gernreich attended college, without completing a degree, and also spent a year at the Los Angeles Center Art School. Enthralled from a performance of the Martha Graham dance company, he joined the Leslie Horton Modern Dance Troupe, in Los Angeles. He worked with the troupe from 1942 to 1948, both as costume designer and also dancing.

After working briefly in New York for a firm that made copies of French designs, work that he loathed. He sold textiles for Hoffman California Fabrics and in 1951 teamed up with manufacturer Walter Bass to provide clothing to a Los Angeles boutique called Jax.

And then he invented the fashion video

Gernreich finally broke off and formed his own firm, GR Designs (later Rudi Gernreich Inc.), in 1960. His name quickly became associated with two fashion models, Peggy Moffitt and Leon Bing, as well as the photographer William Claxton. A short film clip that Claxton and Moffitt did with Gernreich designs in 1966, “Basic Black,” is widely considered to be the first fashion video.

Gernreich introduced a unisex look into his fashion, designing men’s-style underwear for women, and also dressing his models in men’s suits and hats. He employed vinyl and plastic in his designs, giving them what was considered a futuristic look in the 1960s and ‘70s, even designing costumes for the British sci-fi TV series “Space: 1999.”

The monokini was created in 1962. It hadn't originally been intended for commercial production. It consisted of a long bathing suit bottom, supported by two thin straps slung around the neck and through the breasts. Later, Gernreich told an interviewer that, since he had predicted that women would soon be showing up on beaches topless, he might as well supply them with a bathing suit to meet their needs. Another design, the pubkini, from 1985, exposed a woman’s pubic hair, which he had had painted green. That one didn't quite take off.

Supermodel Peggy Moffitt in Rudi Gernreich's paradigm-shifting monokini swimsuit.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Two years later, Gernreich created what he called the “No-Bra,” a soft-cup and light brassiere with no wires or frame. It and a number of variations derived from it, a “no-side” bra and a “no-front” bra among them, influenced the general trend of natural, soft-fabric bras.

Entrapped by police

In 1951, Gernreich was entrapped by police having sex with a man. Soon after, he became involved with the Mattachine Society, a pioneering organization for advancing homosexual rights in the United States, founded by Gernreich’s lover Harry Hay.

Afraid of public exposure as gay, Gernreich was a significant financial contributor to Mattachine, but allowed himself to be identified only as R.

By 1953, Gernreich had met and become involved with Oreste Pucciani, the chairman of the French department at UCLA. The two remained together for 31 years, until the end of Gernreich’s life.

Although Gernreich was convinced that it would damage his reputation to be publicly identified as homosexual and continued to keep that part of his life secret, together with Pucciani he left a large bequest to the American Civil Liberties Union, to provide for "litigation and education in the area of lesbian and gay rights."

Gernreich understood that fashion as an art was on its way out – he famously declared that “fashion as we know it is going to end.” Also, perhaps simply recognizing a decline in demand for his style, he began withdrawing from the field in the 1970s. He exhibited his last collection in 1981. Thereafter he became involved in marketing gourmet soups, some of which were made from his own recipes, and in licensing his name to kitchen and bathroom accessories.

Rudi Gernreich died of lung cancer on April 21, 1985.

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