When readers flipped through their issues of Women’s Wear Daily on June 3, 1964, they were shocked to find images of model Peggy Moffitt in a topless swimsuit. Austrian-American anti-establishment designer Rudi Gernreich had designed this waist-high bikini bottom with suspenders running between Moffitt’s breasts. Avant-garde and controversial, this “monokini” galvanized public opinion. It received an enormous amount of press coverage, which contributed to the acceptance of his more “modest” designs such as tank dresses, mini skirts, and the bikini. Only three thousand suits were sold, as few dared to wear it. Nonetheless, Gernreich’s design catalyzed the 1960s cultural shift toward new forms of sexual expression.
Born in 1922, Austrian designer Rudi Gernreich immigrated to the United States in 1938 to escape anti-Semitic violence. A talented artist, dancer, and performer, he spent his first few years in Los Angeles as a costume designer and dancer for Lester Horton Modern Dance Troupe, whose performances revolved around racial justice and anti-fascist activism.
Gernreich’s early designs in the US were already imbued with political undertones, as Gernreich subverted heteronormative expectations of dress through gender non-conforming silhouettes.
Throughout the 1940s, he designed for various swimwear manufacturers and collaborated with LA and New York-based designers on knitwear micro-collections; they featured interchangeable sets, such as a matching tube top and mini skirt. Allowing wearers to mix and match their garments, Gernreich’s sets brought a sense of lighthearted fun, as well as versatility, to women’s wardrobes.
In 1950, he befriended American activist Harry Hay, who was a member of the California communist party and an activist union organizer. Together, they co-founded the Mattachine Society, one of the first organizations dedicated to lobbying for queer rights. His passion for non-heteronormative and iconoclast expression became an increasingly frequent theme in his work.
In 1960, after gaining national notoriety for his avant-garde knitwear, he founded his eponymous LLC., Rudi Gernreich Inc. Gernreich believed fashion could promote sexual equality, and the central goal of his brand was to free women from the bonds of traditional, patriarchal fashion. He sought to challenge binding fashions that concealed women’s natural curves. For instance, he fused sportswear and designer by creating tube dresses out of tech jersey and printing nylon in bold colors and patterns for tights. By utilizing synthetic sportswear materials for Ready-to-Wear designs, he offered women the opportunity to wear form-fitting and often provocative apparel outside of the athletic sphere. As his business grew, his staple designs included transparent tops, mini skirts, nylon tube dresses, invisible undergarments, the thong, and most notoriously, the monokini. Though initially perceived as a joke at women’s expense, the monokini offered women an unprecedented form of sexual empowerment.
In her 1965 report on the monokini, Gloria Steinem named him “the
American designer responsible for the desertion of the feminine.” Especially in the post-war era, Gernreich’s designs were entirely unprecedented in their audacity, sexual appeal, and purpose. Though many of his designs did not become pervasive on the market until the Sexual Revolution in the 1970s, his head-turning work initiated the womenswear industry’s transition from concealing to revealing. His designs were politically charged statements —just as much as they were novel in aesthetic— as he subverted heteronormative double standards of dress and facilitated societal acceptance of sexually-empowering womenswear.