Ready-To-Stare: The Fearless Fashion of Rudi Gernreich

by Jamia Weir

Photo by Jamia Weir of the Fearless Fashion: Rudi Gernreich at the Skirball Cultural Center.

Photo by Jamia Weir of the Fearless Fashion: Rudi Gernreich at the Skirball Cultural Center.

It became clear to me before I walked into the Skirball Cultural Center to see the Fearless Fashion: Rudi Gernreich exhibition, the work I was about to see would be more than pretty clothing. The man in the parking garage information booth who stopped me to chat about the exhibition I was about to see, told me, “It’s not about fashion, it’s about his worldview.” I soon learned that Rudi Gernreich was ahead of his time.

Photo by Jamia Weir of the Fearless Fashion: Rudi Gernreich at the Skirball Cultural Center.

Photo by Jamia Weir of the Fearless Fashion: Rudi Gernreich at the Skirball Cultural Center.

His clothing was fearless. He rejected conformity and championed authenticity. He supported the evolution of womankind through his liberating fashion designs and philosophies. He was the first to use vinyl and plastic cutouts in clothes and designed the first soft “No Bra” bra. He was the first person to sign up to be a part of one of the first ever gay support organizations. He predicted the future, in his belief that “The future will involve unisex”: men would wear skirts, and women would wear pants. All of these bold moves, statements and ideas were avant garde at the time, and some even still are. I was surprised to see a “monokini” swimsuit that is meant to be worn below the bust, completely exposing a woman’s breasts. It was the 1960s and 70s and Rudi Gernreich was using fashion to express sexual freedom and explore many societal issues while redefining style. 

Photos by Jamia Weir of the Fearless Fashion: Rudi Gernreich at the Skirball Cultural Center.

It was exciting to walk into the main gallery space to see tons of stark white mannequins with flat feet donning Gernreich’s colorful designs. I sat down in awe and to draw in my sketchbook upon seeing the red duotard jumper worn by two mannequins together, as the song “These Boots Were Made For Walkin’” kicked in. This immediately thrilled me and reminded me of the “multi person clothing” made by my artist friend Ana Musachio. Rudi Gernreich was a dancer before a designer and belonged to a dance troupe in Los Angeles. It was dance that mainly inspired him to become a fashion designer. The many ideas he had in his head involved costuming that hadn’t yet been realized, so he began creating his own.

Photo of Jamia’s sketchbook (left) and work by Rudi Gernreich (right).

As a visual artist who also does performance art, I can appreciate and understand the intertwining of art forms, one inspiring and feeding off of the other. I was very inspired by his creations of fabulous wearable art pieces that had big shapes and bold colors, some giving the wearer an animal persona or a fantastical silhouette. Integrating dance and theater ensembles into Rudi’s fashion empowered him and others; he was inviting wearers of the clothing to be anything or anyone they wanted to be. 

Gernreich did get into the “ready to wear” game, but still had that dance costume aesthetic in his toolbelt. He sometimes used dancers to model his clothing, as did model and dancer Peggy Moffitt, a muse of Gernreich. Peggy was creating interesting shapes with her body that would complement Gernreich’s designs. Peggy and her photographer husband William Claxton worked closely with him for years, creating very uniquely styled photographs that featured these big shapes in the clothing, in the bodily movements and within the hair and makeup styling. There is a space in the back room of the exhibition where you can take photos alongside the ones of Moffitt, inspired by her moves.

Photos of Jamia’s sketchbook while drawing at the exhibition.

Rudi Gernreich also produced what is known as the first fashion video, Basic Black, in 1966 which was one of my favorite parts of the exhibition and can be watched onscreen with headphones attached, along with many other video/audio interviews.

Wander around this fantabulous, colorful exhibition before it closes on September 1st and see for yourself.