Rudi Gernreich and the Monokini
|Rudi Gernreich, Duotard costume for the Lewitzky Dance Company's Inscape, 1976|
The Skirball Center's "Fearless Fashion: Rudi Gernreich" seems utterly of the moment (more so than the Met's "Camp"). Gernreich was no less grounded in L.A.'s 1960s art scene, a face in the crowd of LACMA's 1968 portrait of the Cool School. In fact, Gernreich may have been the one household-name celebrity sitting on LACMA's steps. That's due to the monokini.
Throughout his life, Gernreich retained the free, Viennese attitude to nudity. This was reflected above all in his swimsuits. In a 1962 issue of Women's Wear Daily, Gernreich declared: "Bosoms will be uncovered within five years." Thereafter journalists kept pressing him for specifics. "It was my prediction," Gernreich recalled. "For the sake of history, I didn't want [Emilio] Pucci to do it first."
|Rudi Gernreich, women's swimsuits, 1953–1964. The 1964 Monokini is in orange.|
Gernreich did not intend to produce the monokini commercially. But Vogue's Diana Vreeland told him that a design doesn't exist unless there are pictures. So Gernreich flew five models to the Bahamas for a photo-shoot. All five refused the shoot when they found out their breasts would be exposed. The photographer recruited an island prostitute to model the swimsuit. Look magazine published a shot of the woman from the back.
|William Claxton, Peggy Moffitt in Rudi Gernreich Topless Swimsuit, 1964. J. Paul Getty Museum (not in the Skirball exhibition). (c) The William Claxton Estate|
Gernreich's monokinis went on sale at I. Magnin, B. Altman, and Lord and Taylor. They sold 3000 of them at $24 each (about $200 in today's money). There is scant documentation of anyone wearing them in public, however, and the few who dared made the news. San Francisco burlesque performer Carol Doda wore one in her nightclub act, thereby launching a "topless" career. Model Toni Lee Shelley wore a monokini on a Lake Michigan beach and was promptly detained by Chicago police.
Life magazine writer Shana Alexander offered a level-headed assessment: "Once you get over the shock, which takes about 10 minutes, the new suit begins to strike you as the most absurd garment since those two rascally weavers manufactured the emperor's new clothes. The new suit is no good for swimming, because it falls off, and it is no good for sunning, because it leaves disastrous strap marks."
It is now easy to read the monokini as the triumph of the Playboy-era male gaze. But Gernreich and Moffitt spoke of it in feminist terms. Gernreich told Vreeland that the monokini represented "freedom—in fashion as well as every other facet of life."
"Rudi's aim was to free the breast rather than glorify it sexually," said Moffitt. She called the monokini "a political statement."
|Rudi Gernreich, Censored Monokini, 1964. Gernreich created this "censored" swimsuit as a comment on reactions to the original|
"He borrowed from the future," Ed Ruscha said of Gernreich. Larry Bell, credited as a supporter of the Skirball show, wrote a 1972 letter to Gernreich saying that "knowing that there are artists doing things other than painting etc like yourself makes life that much better."
Most political artists preach to a choir. For a few pivotal years Gernreich had everyone's attention, broadcasting the message that gender is a costumed performance—make of that what you will.
“We’ve seen our problems," wrote Gernreich in 1970. "Now let’s solve them. Everywhere.”
|A c. 1973 Rudi Gernreich forecast: In the future, all unisex families will wear caftans|