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Rudi Gernreich, the Austrian-born avant-garde fashion designer of the 1950s and 1960s, finds substance in style in his discussion of the effect of androgynous clothing on gender roles.
Beyond the Bared Breast
TODAY, AUSTRIAN-AMERICAN DESIGNER Rudi Gernreich (1922-85) is best known for his topless bathing suit, or the ‘monokini’ as it was dubbed, embodied by Peggy Moffitt. This iconic image, alongside his so-called ‘kooky’ designs in psychedelic colours and sleek, space-age silhouettes have come to popularly define his body of work. As a designer, he defined an era fashion journalist for The New York Times, Bernardine Morris called him ‘the country’s leading avant-garde designer of the 1950s and 60’s. However Gernreich’s influence was more profound: from his involvement in the early strands of America’s gay rights movement, to his bold and often controversial statements he made as a designer that questioned the role of fashion in culture. Despite this, Gernreich has become more of a footnote in fashion history than a cultural icon of a generation, a title more deserving of the dynamic designer.
Gernreich’s topless suit was first photographed for Look magazine in June, 1964, but the unknown model kept her back to the camera. The first time it appeared on a model with her breasts exposed was in Women’s Wear Daily later that month on the iconic Peggy Moffitt.
The designer’s story begins in the grim setting of pre-War Europe. Gernreich and his Jewish mother fled Vienna for California soon after the Nazis accessioned Austria in 1937. After a few short stints in Hollywood, such as his job sketching for famed costume designer Edith Head (much later he crafted delightful costumes for Otto Preminger’s awesomely bad musical Skidoo), he started producing designs for the fashion industry in 1950. Around this time, he became romantically involved with Harry Hay, a political activist often called the founder of the modern gay rights movement. During their three-year relationship, they co-founded the Mattachine Society, America’s first gay rights organisation. Gernreich’s participation in the group was brief but crucial it lasted only a few years, and afterwards he never publicly acknowledged his homosexuality again. His co-founder and ex-partner Hay went in the other direction, going on to found the Radical Faeries, a ‘gay hippie’ group, in the 1970s, a group that continues to have active memberships internationally today.
Gernreich (wearing the tie) co-founded the Mattachine Society with Harry Hay, top left.
Gernreich’s brief, but influential involvement in the history of the gay rights movement survives in a Mattachine notebook in the designer’s archive at UCLA in California. One particular page shows notes for a planned discussion about ‘camping’ – acting outrageous and effeminate. The tone of his questions is surprisingly circumspect for 1951, and reads: ‘Since we agree that camping is conscious homo [sic] expression, what then is unconscious homosexual behavior [?]’ and, ‘How can camping become an acceptable homosexual expression?’ After leaving the group (and Hay) in 1953, Gernreich never publicly acknowledged this or any association with gay rights again, although his work as a designer continued to embody ideas of radical thought and personal expression. When Gernreich’s topless bathing suit first appeared in 1964, the design was a succès de scandale, inspiring some 20,000 press articles in response. The design was created on the suggestion of Susanne Kirtland, editor at Look magazine, reading Gernreich’s pronouncements about the impending craze for ‘toplessness’. Kirtland contacted the designer in 1962 and asked him to make a topless suit, he demurred, fearing it would ruin his career. Kirtland’s response was, ‘Oh, but you’ve got to I’ve already had clearance from the front office.’ Gernreich finally conceded, motivated by the fear that his competitor, Emilio Pucci, would make a topless suit first. Though the design was not a commercial success (only 3,000 copies of the suit sold), this single garment put Gernreich in the history books for its risqué and revealing nature. But this was not the statement the designer intended. For Gernreich, the gesture had roots in his European upbringing the garment was progressive, and implicitly feminist: if men can go topless, why can’t women? In an essay for a touring retrospective of the designer’s work, ‘Fashion Will Go Out of Fashion’, author Elfriede Jelinek underscores the suit’s value, explaining that Gernreich ‘doesn’t do it to emphasise the nakedness of the top half of the woman’s body. Instead, in partially exposing this part of the body, he clothes it, but in a different way, and thus re-creates it.’ Despite this, the American media’s response was leering and thereafter Gernreich became associated with the ‘kookiness’ and ‘crazy’ styles of this revolutionary period of the mid-sixties, a cliché he never managed to escape.
Stills from the short film ‘Basic Black’ by William Claxton, husband of Gernreich muse Peggy Moffitt, of Gerneich’s fashions from 1967.
In 1967, at the height of his fame, Gernreich shuttered his atelier, telling The New York Times that he was ‘exhausted’. He never mounted a major collection again but continued to offer dire predictions to the press. In 1970, Life magazine asked him to predict the future of fashion, Gernreich arranged for a pair of models to appear nude, and completely shaved, at a promotional event. He later explained, ‘What unisex means is that we are beyond pathology, and fashion is finished.’ The death of fashion became his great theme: ‘Fashion will go out of fashion,’ he told Forbes. To another interviewer, he said, ‘I’m not out to kill fashion. It’s already finished. The word has no meaning. It stands for all the wrong values. Snobbism, wealth, the select few. It’s antisocial. It isolates itself from the masses. Today you can’t be antisocial, so fashion is gone. Even the word has become a little embarrassing. Clothes. Gear. These are the words of today.’ These broadsides did little to aid the designer’s career, and were largely ignored by the fashion press.
Rudi Gernreich’s ‘Unisex Fashions’ that appeared in Life magazine in 1970, as the fashion shoot ‘Double Exposure’.
Two years after his death in 1985, Peggy Moffitt, his muse and friend, gave an interview to the Fashion Institute of Technology that reveals the limitations of his activist approach for the designer. She explains that, ‘He liked the idea of being the prophet. It’s great to prophesise, but then you say, “Peggy, can we see the first piece?”… He loved being in the headlines. But he didn’t love making these clothes any more.” When examined more closely, Gernreich’s career has a profound implications beyond his ‘monokini’ design. He was an activist at heart, with progressive and controversial design statements that were often misunderstood by the press. What the industry wanted was the ‘kooky’ clothes so popular at the time but what Gernreich had was an abundance of ideas. It’s interesting to speculate, fifty years after this radical – and misinterpreted – gesture of toplessness, whether he spent his final years wishing he had never made that bathing suit at all.
Fashion for the 70’s Rudi Gernreich Predictions from Jan 1, 1970 Life Magazine
“Winter or summer, male or female everybody will dress alike.
“In cold, wintry weather, predicts Gernreich, “both men and women will wear heavy ribbed leotards and waterproof boots.”
Long before online shopping, he correctly predicted:
“It will be impossible to drive to stores because of traffic, so all clothes will be ordered from a catalog or TV set.”
Predating PETA, he also was right abut the sea of synthetics we would be drowning with in this Quiana consumed decade.
“And since animals which now supply wool, fur and leather will be so rare that they must be protected and weaving fabric such as cotton will be too much trouble, most clothes will be made entirely of cheap and disposable synthetic knits.”
Fashion for the 70’s Rudi Gernreich Predictions from Jan 1, 1970 Life Magazine
“Clothing will not be identified as either male or female says Gernreich,” correctly predicting the unisex craze…maybe.
“So women will wear pants and men will wear skirts interchangeably. And since there wont be any squeamishness about nudity, see through clothes will only be see-through for reasons of comfort.”
Perhaps in a nod to his topless bathing suit that caused a sensation in the 1960’s, the designer predicted:
“Weather permitting both sexes will go about bare chested, though women will wear simple protective pasties. Jewelry will exist only as a utility- that is, to hold something up or together, like a belt, or for information, like a combination wristwatch weather indicator, compass and radio.”
“The esthetics of fashion are going to evolve the body itself. We will train the body to grow beautifully rather than cover it to produce beauty.”
Rudi Gernreich garments featured in A Queer History of Fashion
We're delighted that two Rudi Gernreich garments from our collection are featured in A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk at the Museum at FIT. Open through January 4, 2014, A Queer History of Fashion explores the "significant contributions to fashion made by LGBTQ
(lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender-queer) individuals over the past 300
years." Including approximately 100 ensembles ranging from 18th century menswear to 21st century high fashion, this exhibit honors the numerous, and often hidden, contributions of gay and lesbian designers. It has been getting wonderful press, so if you're in New York, don't miss it!
Rudi Gernreich (1922-1985) wasn't publicly out during his lifetime. Like many other well-known designers, Gernreich kept his sexual orientation hidden from the public. In private life, however, Gernreich was involved in important efforts to de-stigmatize homosexuality. In 1950, Gernreich became romantically involved with Harry Hay. Hay had been formulating an idea for an secret society supporting gay men, and was seeking like-minded men to join his group. Gernreich supported Hay's radical plan, and together with a small group of friends, they founded the Mattachine Society. The first branch of the Society was based in Los Angeles, though off-shoots soon emerged in other urban centers. With its emphasis on reducing isolation, and promoting common cause among gay men, the Mattachine Society was one of the earliest gay rights groups in the United States.
Bequest of the Rudi Gernreich Estate
This caftan (one of two Gernreich caftans we loaned to A Queer History of Fashion) is the ultimate expression of Gernreich's dislike for fashions that confined movement. As a designer, Gernreich worked to liberate the body. His No-Bra bras, unlined bras offering a natural look, and the famous breast-baring monokini, demonstrate this effort. Though many of Gernreich's designs emphasized youthful bodies, with this caftan Gernreich proposed a unisex uniform for the elderly.
Created for Expo 1970, held in Osaka, Japan, this silk caftan was designed for maximum comfort. Instead of emphasizing the body, it was designed to abstract the body. In Gernreich's words, "If a body can no longer be accentuated, it should be abstracted." 1 To distract from the body, Gernreich enlisted both the voluminous silhouette and the colorful, abstract pattern.
Like many of Gernreich's later designs, these caftans were intentionally unisex. To complete the unisex look, Gernreich recommended that both men and women shave their heads so that their gender was less recognizable. The designer's interest in unisex clothing can be considered another expression of his interest in sartorial liberation dressing without regard to gender would allow both men and women to express themselves more fully, without regard for societal limitations.
See both of our Rudi Gernreich caftans in A Queer History of Fashion at the Museum at FIT through January 4, 2014. Hope you have a chance to see this exhibit! If you do, drop us a line and let us know what you think of Gernreich's unisex caftans.
1 "Fashion for the ྂs." Life (Jan 9, 1970), 118.
A Brief History of Unisex Fashion
In March, the London department store Selfridges gave itself a radical makeover, transforming three floors of its Oxford Street emporium into gender-neutral shopping areas. Androgynous mannequins wore unisex garments by designers such as Haider Ackermann, Ann Demeulemeester, and Gareth Pugh, and the store’s website got a similarly sexless redesign, displaying the same products on both male and female models. Dubbed “Agender,” the temporary pop-up shopping experience—or experiment—ultimately proved to be more successful as a marketing tool than a retail revolution as some fashion journalists have pointed out, today’s clothes “are much the same for each sex anyhow.”
But that wasn’t always the case. As Freud put it: “When you meet a human being, the first distinction you make is ‘male or female?’ and you are accustomed to make the distinction with unhesitating certainty.” Had Freud lived through the 20th century instead of the 19th, he might have had good cause for hesitation. In an era when gender norms—and many other norms—were being questioned and dismantled, unisex clothing was the uniform of choice for soldiers in the culture wars.
In her new book Sex and Unisex: Fashion, Feminism, and the Sexual Revolution, the University of Maryland professor Jo Paoletti revisits the unisex trend, a pillar of second-wave feminism whose influence still resonates today. As Paoletti tells it, unisex clothing was a baby-boomer corrective to the rigid gender stereotyping of the 1950s, itself a reaction to the perplexing new roles imposed on men and women alike by World War II. The term “gender” began to be used to describe the social and cultural aspects of biological sex in the 1950s—a tacit acknowledgement that one’s sex and one’s gender might not match up neatly. The unisex clothing of the 1960s and 70s aspired “to blur or cross gender lines” ultimately, however, it delivered “uniformity with a masculine tilt,” and fashion’s brief flirtation with gender neutrality led to a “stylistic whiplash” of more obviously gendered clothing for women and children beginning in the 1980s.
As far as the American fashion industry was concerned, the unisex movement came and largely went in one year: 1968. The trend began on the Paris runways, where designers like Pierre Cardin, Andre Courreges, and Paco Rabanne conjured up an egalitarian “Space Age” of sleek, simple silhouettes, graphic patterns, and new, synthetic fabrics with no historical gender associations. As women burned their bras (symbolically if not literally), U.S. department stores created special sections for unisex fashions, though most of them had closed by 1969. But their impact could be felt for a decade afterwards in “his-n-hers” clothing, promoted in cutesy ads, catalog spreads, and sewing patterns. “The difference between avant-garde unisex and the later version,” Paoletti argues, “is the distinction between boundary-defying designs, often modeled by androgynous-looking models, and a less threatening variation, worn by attractive heterosexual couples.”
Children bore the brunt of the unisex craze: pants for girls, long hair for boys, and ponchos for everyone. “Baby boomers and Generation Xers tend to have very different memories of the unisex era,” Paoletti notes, and her book allows readers to admire the progressive intentions behind the trend while cringing at the result. Though parents feared that enforcing rigid gender stereotypes could be harmful to kids—fears stoked by emerging scientific evidence that gender roles were learned and malleable at a young age—the embarrassment of being mistaken for a member of the opposite sex left lasting psychological scars on many of their offspring. Young children had worn gender-neutral clothing (and played with gender-neutral toys) for decades before “unisex” became a buzzword, but the aggressively “non-gendered” child rearing of the 1970s took neutrality to a new level children’s books and TV shows made a point of showing boys playing with dolls and women tinkering with cars. It was only in the 1980s that the self-actualizing lessons of the seminal children’s book (and celebrity-narrated LP) Free to Be … You and Me succumbed to the Princess Industrial Complex, a trend that is just now beginning to correct itself. (A 35th anniversary edition of Free to Be … You and Me was released in 2008.)
Although unisex clothing aimed to minimize gender differences, it usually had the opposite effect.
Although unisex clothing aimed to minimize gender differences, it usually had the opposite effect. As Paoletti writes, “part of the appeal of adult unisex fashion was the sexy contrast between the wearer and the clothes, which actually called attention to the male or female body.” Take the costumes fashion designer Rudi Gernreich—inventor of the monokini and the unisex thong—created for the 1975-77 television series Space: 1999. Gernreich envisioned 1999 as a gender-neutral utopia of jumpsuits, turtlenecks, and tunics. While technically unisex, these tight-fitting costumes made the wearer’s sex glaringly obvious, and they retained traditional gender markers such as bras, makeup, and jewelry for women.
The unisex movement may have made women’s clothes more masculine, but it never made them unfeminine furthermore, “attempts to feminize men’s appearance turned out to be particularly short-lived,” Paoletti notes. (Even today, it’s mainly women who are buying unisex garments, not men.) While some men attempted to reclaim the flamboyance that had disappeared with the French Revolution, for many this so-called Peacock Revolution “raised the specter of decadence and homosexuality, a fear reinforced by the emergence of the gay liberation movement.” The irony, Paoletti points out, was that “at that time true homosexual men tended to be purposely invisible … To do otherwise was to risk one’s career or even being arrested.” The new popular and scientific interest in bisexuality was truly liberating for homosexual men, offering them a culturally acceptable alternative to the closet. It was liberating for fashion, as well if everyone was a little bit of each sex, clothing did not have to proclaim one or the other as loudly.
Thus, the novelty of matchy-matchy “his-n-hers” outfits and everyone-in-jumpsuits-futurism quickly burned out in favor of the sexier androgyny (which Paoletti defines as clothes combining masculine and feminine elements, rather than avoiding gender markers altogether). In 1966, Yves Saint Laurent introduced le smoking, a tuxedo for women over the next few years, he would reinterpret the mannish silhouette in gangster pinstripes and safari khaki. Halston made his name with the ubiquitous Ultrasuede shirtdress—a modern, feminine twist on a man’s shirt. As the current FIT Museum exhibition Yves Saint Laurent and Halston: Fashioning the Seventies illustrates, the designers weren't merely dressing women in menswear they were dressing them as themselves, in classic pieces that reflected their own, subtly androgynous wardrobes. The exhibition catalogue argues that this “slick and functional style” associated with the international jet set was equally appealing to young, working women: not just trousers but pea coats, dress shirts, and blazers became female wardrobe staples.
Men, too, experimented with androgyny. Unusually, womenswear designers (including Pierre Cardin and Bill Blass) began to produce menswear lines the mandarin-collared, button-front Nehru jacket (the Western name for the traditional Indian garment, after the first Prime Minister of India) was a Cardin signature. Along with tunics, vests, sport coats, and furs, the Nehru jacket offered men an alternative to the proverbial gray flannel suit Nehru collars, ascots, turtlenecks, and scarves made neckties obsolete, at least temporarily. Today, women are still wearing pants to the office, but men have reverted to suits and ties.
Paoletti traces the end of the unisex era to the mid-1970s. In 1974, Diane von Furstenberg introduced her wrap dress, a garment that combined femininity and functionality. With its demure length, slit skirt, and deep V-neck, it was simultaneously modest and sexy it could go from the office to the disco. The wrap dress wooed women away from pantsuits, landing von Furstenberg on the cover of Newsweek in 1976 under the headline “Rags & Riches.”
The unisex movement may have made women’s clothes more masculine, but it never made them unfeminine.
Since the 1990s, however, fashion has been blurring gender lines once again. A recent New York Magazine story traced modern androgyny to grunge: Women donned flannel lumberjack shirts and combat boots while Kurt Cobain posed in ballgowns and housedresses. (Cobain’s taste for off-the-cuff cross-dressing was evident in the most recent Saint Laurent and Gucci menswear shows.) At the same time, lookalike couples fashion (known as Keo-Peul-Look) first appeared in South Korea. This modern take on “his-n-hers” dressing caught on powerfully in a country where public displays of (physical) affection are frowned upon. Korean couples are androgynous by necessity, wearing skinny jeans, sneakers, sweaters, and hoodies unisex garments are much more accessible and socially acceptable today than they were in the 1960s. But this careful coordination is not just an outward show hardcore practitioners match down to their underwear. Thus, the ultimate relationship publicity has become the ultimate relationship intimacy, and unisex underwear is now a thing.
Indeed, unisex everything appears to be back with a vengeance Rad Hourani even showed a unisex haute couture collection for Spring/Summer 2015. Personnel of New York divides its online offerings into Men, Women, and Everyone labels like 69, Kowtow, and The Kooples encourage sex-swapping. Even the Space Age is new again Christian Dior’s fall couture show included astronaut jumpsuits, while Gucci showed mod shifts and patent-leather boots. What are we to make of this gender confusion—or, perhaps, this adamant refusal to be gender-confused? “The fashions of the 1960s and 1970s articulated many questions about sex and gender but in the end provided no final answers,” Paoletti concludes. These questions went much deeper than Freud’s “male or female?” Clearly, we are still struggling to resolve them just ask openly gay Louisiana teen Claudetteia Love, who nearly missed her senior prom because the school wouldn’t let her wear a tuxedo. Psychologically, there’s still a vast gap between a male garment adapted for a woman’s body and a male garment. Increasingly, however, men and women are wearing the same garments, bought from the same stores, in a retail landscape as rich, varied, and occasionally baffling as gender itself.
9 Gender Fluid Fashion Trends From The Past
From Katharine Hepburn donning her suits to male models marching in pussy bows down the Gucci runway, gender fluid fashion trends aren't exactly a new thing. Fashion and the people wearing it have blurred gender lines plenty of times before.
That said, there are certain gender fluid trends from history that we should seriously consider bringing back into our closets — not only for the aesthetic, but to pay homage to the freedoms they helped usher into the culture. Throughout the decades, clothes have inspired people to become more open-minded and forward thinking, and gender fluidity in clothing is just one aspect of that.
But which looks should we take from the past and reimagine for 2016? There are plenty that are still in circulation, but let's take a walk back into fashion history and see all of the possibilities. Below are nine gender fluid fashion trends from the past, and why they're still awesome today.
1. The Teddy Boy & Girl Look
During the 1950s, London experienced a Teddy Boy explosion, where the youth favored Edwardian-inspired silhouettes like tailored suits and slicked back quiff hairdos. According to Vice, "Youths had started to appear on British streets in 1951 in a style of dress partly inspired by the Edwardian dandy. A rejection of post-war greyscale drabness — demob suits and the like — it was a proudly eccentric style, and one that didn't tip its cap to the established order." The uniform? A drape jacket that resembled a zoot suit, with tailored pants, brogues, and a greased back quiff. The girls varied in this look by cuffing their pants and sometimes adding scarves around their necks, but the end result was the same: A frivolous dandy that was tired of scrimping.
2. The Women's Tuxedo
Yves Saint Laurent made the first women's tuxedo in 1966, and the classically male silhouette empowered the women that stepped out of their evening gowns and into their coat tails. According to Business Insider, the woman who wore it was "irreverent" and demanded, "If men can wear this, why can’t I?" The look went perfectly with the second-wave of feminism that took over that decade, but somewhat faded out of style shortly thereafter. Sure, the odd celeb wears a version of the sleek outfit every now and then on the red carpet, but why not opt for cuff links just as often as sequined gowns when it comes to fancy affairs?
3. Baby Doll Dresses
In the '90s, Kurt Cobain had a penchant for taking the stage in anything from Courtney Love's closet, including baby doll dresses and thrifted cupcake-like prom dresses. When he was questioned as to why he had a penchant for the traditionally feminine dress silhouette, his answer was a why-does-it-matter shoulder shrug. According to New York Magazine, "When Melody Maker asked him, in 1992, why he’d chosen to wear a white babydoll dress in the video for 'In Bloom,' he demurred. 'I really don’t know why. I like to wear dresses because they’re comfortable. If I could wear a sheet, I would. I don’t know what to say … if I said we do it to be subversive, then that would be a load of shit, because men in bands wearing dresses isn’t controversial anymore.'"
Considering Mick Jagger's Princess Diana collared dresses and David Bowie's silk frocks, Cobain might have been onto something. By embracing something so quintessentially "female" as a dress, men have the option to break out of their tough guy trope.
4. Crop Tops
The unisex style all started with designer Rudi Gernreich, who believed men and women could pull of the exact same styles, without any gender-influenced tweaks. Whether it was wearing mini skirts, cropped tanks, or bikini sets, he believed there shouldn't be a difference in style according to gender.
While this is a fan-favorite for many women everywhere, men seem to still get quite the backlash. For example, when Kid Cudi came on the Coachella stage in 2014 in an orange crop top, there was just as much pushback as there was approval, as Complex reported with a roundup of Twitter reactions.
The more we see guys decked out in belly-baring crops, the less scandalizing it will be, and the less prone we'll be to questioning everybody's sexual and gender affiliation when it comes to something as minor as clothes.
This 1960's piece might make it look like you're a couple that's just escaped out of prison, but the idea of the trend is what we're after and not the exact silhouette.
The piece actually has some exciting, gender fluid beginnings, ranging from male rock stars, female show queens, and future spaceship dwellers. According to the Los Angeles Times, "The onesie hit the runway in the 1960s when André Courrèges showed his Space Age jumpsuits in Paris. Soon, Cher, Abba and Elvis adapted the look to their stage wardrobes, while Diana Ross, Liza Minnelli and Bianca Jagger disco danced at Studio 54 in Halston's drapey, free-flowing one-piece styles."
Giving the jumpsuit a millennial spin could make it super chic for all sexes, where we ditch the burnt orange hue and Studio 64 collars and replace them with tapered pants and minimalist lines. In fact, according to Style Blazer, the jumpsuit could have already started its campaign for a comeback anyway, already appearing in men's closets.
In the 1960s, both men and women rocked ponchos, keeping in line with the hippie trend of borrowing from different cultures. Whether you threw yours over pants or a skirt it didn't matter — coziness would ensue regardless. Slate reported, "The poncho, of course, is hardly a new phenomenon. In the late '60s and early '70s, a ponchoed Clint Eastwood, swaggering through spaghetti westerns, elevated the look Frank Zappa sang about issues of poncho authenticity in 'Camarillo Brillo' ("Is that a real poncho . I mean Is that a Mexican poncho or is that a Sears poncho?") and Susan Dey (as Laurie Partridge) popularized the poncho among teenage girls desperate to emulate her laid-back, sleepy-eyed beauty." While the trend easily worked on all genders, the easily swapped "his and hers" ponchos had a little more context to them other than just being a blanket you could wear.
According to The Smithsonian, "As the feminist movement gained steam and women fought for equal rights, their clothing became more androgynous. Men, meanwhile, discarded grey flannel suits—and the restrictive version of masculinity that came with them — by appropriating feminine garments." Jo Paoletti, author of Sex and Unisex: Fashion, Feminism, and the Sexual Revolution, argued that "Both genders were questioning the idea of gender as fixed." So whether you want to wear it as a stance for feminism and a direct challenge of gender norms, or just because you think it's hella cozy, let's bring this one back from the past.
7. The Beatnik Look
In the 1950s there was a subculture of disillusioned youth that wanted to reject the prosperity that the post-war brought and, instead, bury themselves in philosophy and poetry. Enter the beatniks, a group of people that favored simple black turtlenecks and cigarette pants, with berets, leotards, and reading glasses thrown in for good measure. AnOther Magazine explained the subgroup, "The post-war boom which flowed over the USA in the late 1950s brought with it more than simply a greater quality of life.
With money came materialism — a plague that members of the Beat movement was determined to withstand." Because of that, their style was bare minimum and simple, where both sexes opted for lots of black and slim silhouettes that let them blend in. "While in the mainstream, adolescents were donning billowing hourglass skirts in an echo of Christian Dior’s New Look, beatniks opted for black Why should we bring this back? Simply put, a minimalist, all-black outfit arguably never goes out of style.
While Gucci is leading the way in bringingneed a source for this vintage silhouettes into men's closets, but the simple hat is rife with history, from being a peasant's hat in the 1550s to a political revolutionary staple. It made a strong comeback in the 20th century, symbolizing different things in different decades, from being a metropolitan staple for all genders in the '20s to a revolutionary symbol in the '60s and '70s for the likes of Che Guevara and The Black Panthers, worn by both men and women. Bring the beret back to your hat rotation: Whether you choose to channel Parisians, beatniks, revolutionaries, or 16th century peasant is up to you.
9. Three-Piece Suits
While the look has long been wildly popular for decades when it came to men, three-piece suits also became popular in the '30s for women. Bold, opinionated female movie stars like Marlene Dietrich and Dorothy Mackaill loved them, buttoning themselves into vests and throwing ties around their necks during a time where women were ostracized for simply wearing pants.
Vice pointed out that in 1939, Vogue fashion editor Elizabeth Penrose spoke out against working women that would wear their pants outside of their workplace, calling them "slackers in slacks." With more than a handful of decades between us and the '30s, the three-piece suit would now look incredibly dapper on for, say, a Tuesday lunch meeting — no matter what gender you identify with.
Next time you go shopping, try to break away from your usual preferences and try out some of these time-transcending gender fluid suggestions. Who knows, you just might love them as much as your fashion forepeople did.
Images: Plaid Stallions (1) Yves Saint Laurent (1) The Face (1) Rollins-Joffe Productions (1) Super Simple (1)
Rudi Gernreich - History
Rudi Gernreich was born in 1922 in Vienna to an intellectual Jewish family. His father was a hosiery manufacturer. His aunt owned a fashion shop that sold the best Parisian knockoffs in the country. During the 1930s, his family fled from the Nazis, immigrating to Los Angeles. He became an American citizen in 1943. In L.A., he worked at a mortuary and in the publicity department at RKO Studios he also studied art at Los Angeles College. When he discovered dance after joining a West Hollywood troupe, it changed his life. He took particular note of the dance uniforms for future inspiration.
By 1950, he decided dance wasn’t paying the bills, so he began pursuing a fashion career. He relocated to New York City to work for George Camel, a coat and suit company. In 1951, he met Walter Bass, who believed in the Austrian’s talent and partnered with him to start a fashion business. Gernreich’s deconstructed sportswear was snapped up on both coasts, making him the designer to watch. He kept pushing the line with every collection. He designed a bra-free bathing suit (1952) and a knitted tube dress (1953) that hugged every curve. His main focus by the late 1950s, however, was swimwear—wool knitted and elasticized. During this time, he also created a menswear line (1956), a women’s footwear collection (1957), and hosiery/stockings (1959).
In 1960, Gernreich broke away from Bass to form his own company, G.R. Designs. He continued to push boundaries with clothing that appealed to women of all ages. His hemlines were cut above the knee—scandalous for the time. Nothing could prepare the world for his next big move—the creation of the topless swimsuit called a monokini. A one-piece suit with a strap between the two breasts, putting them prominently on display, shocked the still prudish public in 1964. Stores that carried the bathing suit were picketed and even received bomb threats. Over 3,000 suits were sold, but only one person in the States was ever spotted wearing it, and she was quickly arrested. If he hadn't been famous before, he was now.
For the next few years, the radical Gernreich clothing was a hot commodity, particularly with teens and 20-30 somethings. He continued to design clothing that moved by using malleable materials. He also used diametrically opposed colors (like lime and purple) and bold graphics in his designs. Some of his wackier concepts included jackets with one round collar and one-pointed collar white satin tuxedos, and military safari clothing complete with dog tags. At his peak, he opened a showroom in Manhattan, exhibiting his knits via Harmon Knitwear and more of his avant-garde designs.
In the early 1970s, he also concocted the concept of "unisex" clothing—that which can be worn by men or women. Some of his biggest unisex designs were knit bell-bottom trousers, floor-length kaftans, Y-front women's underwear, and midriff tops. Other designs that rocked the fashion world were his thong bathing suit that showed off the buttocks, chiffon T-shirt dresses, see-through tops, and vinyl mini-dresses.
From 1970-1971, he designed furnishings for Fortress and Knoll International, and in 1975 he created men's style underwear for Lily of France. Kitchen and bathroom accessories, rugs, and bedding were added to his output, as were cosmetics in collaboration with Redken. Before leaving fashion, he went out with a bang in 1982 by designing the "pubkini," which revealed the wearer's pubic hair. In 1985, Gernreich died of lung cancer in 1985 at age 62.
A queer history of fashion
Fashion is queer and we know it. So why don’t we talk about it? From Christian Dior to Alexander McQueen, Yves Saint Laurent and Jil Sander many of the world’s greatest designers have identified as LGBTQ. And for centuries, fashion has been an instrument of expression and experimentation for this community. The sex-charged creations of designers like Walter Van Beirendonck, and the androgynous looks flooding fashion week’s runways, prove that sexuality and the way we style ourselves are inextricably entwined. Yet, until now, there had never been an in-depth study on the subject.
‘A Queer History of Fashion: From The Closet To The Catwalk’, explores how gender and sexuality have been inspiring and informing fashion for over 300 years. Edited by Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York, the book accompanies an MFIT’s exhibition of the same name. It features contributions by some of the world’s most acclaimed scholars of gay history and fashion.
This complex subject is Steele’s thing: she has previously penned books on fashion and eroticism, fetish and gothic style – to name a few. For Steele, fashion is chained to identity, to which sexuality is heart and soul.
Dazed Digital: When you think about how many big name designers are gay it’s actually quite mind-blowing.
Valerie Steele: That was one of the main reasons why Fred [Dennis, co-curator] and I wanted to do this as a subject. It’s like an open secret – everybody knows this but nobody ever really talks about it.
DD: Why has the LGBTQ community always shared such close ties with fashion?
Valerie Steele: It’s complicated because it goes way back further than we’d thought. It involves the whole history of oppression and secrecy surrounding gay sexuality, which was illegal for many years and regarded as a mental illness. So I think gays and lesbians had to be hyper aware of how to read and analyse clothes so as to dress in a way that would allow them to communicate with other people but not to be recognised by a homophobic society. I think another aspect is that fashion is one of the so-called ‘artistic’ professions. And gays have been involved in a lot of those. Once gay people started to work in the fashion industry it started the beginnings of a more welcoming setting for other gays to enter into.
DD: When was this happening?
Valerie Steele: Certainly as early as the 1920’s but probably sooner than that. Gays were already interested in fashion in the 18th and 19th centuries, though we don’t have the names of explicit couturiers. Some of our sources talked about the desire to express oneself in a way other than verbally and the desire to create an alternative world of beauty.
DD: Is there a gay aesthetic?
Valerie Steele: Not just one. Each individual designer has his or her personal style and that’s also tied in with the style of a particular period. So you can see both idealising trends and also transgressive trends in gay design. You can see idealised feminine beauty in the work of say, Dior. But then if you go back a couple of decades to the thirties and the work of somebody like Mainbocher it’s a very different aesthetic.
Butch Chanel, Wigstock, NYC, 1992 Photograph by Michael James O’Brien, c.2013
DD: Marc Jacobs once said, “I don’t believe my sexuality has any bearing on how I design clothes.” Thoughts?
Valerie Steele: I think that every component of a person’s individuality does: their age, their sexuality, where they’re from it doesn’t determine it but it influences it. He might be right, speaking personally. But I think that collectively over time it would be highly likely to have an influence.
DD: During this fashion week and for some time we’ve seen a lot of experimentation with androgyny and a neutral space between male and female. Does the LGBTQ influence have something to do with this?
Valerie Steele: Yes I think so. It’s not the sole cause, but historically you look back and you see that from the 19th century on and even earlier many lesbians were attracted to men’s tailored suits and there was the whole concept of whether LGBTQ people were like a third sex, in-between. Somebody like Rudi Gernreich felt that unisex and androgynous clothes might provide a new space for freedom for both men and women.
Dazed Digital: Is there the potential for a third sex in fashion?
Valerie Steele: Well, the bodies are different so a perfect androgyny would be unlikely. And then of course people do want to play with the idea of secondary sexual characteristics and gender as a theme. But I think it does indicate a growing sense of freedom and possibility that people of all sexes, all genders and all ages are able to find a kind of fashion that expresses who they are.
Dazed Digital: Why do we hear so much about gay designers but not so much about lesbian designers?
Valerie Steele: I think there have been more lesbian and bisexual contributions to fashion than we have known about. It’s been much more discreet – for whatever reason women have decided to be more under the radar about their sexuality. Somebody like Madeleine Vionnet, arguably the greatest couturier of the 20th century, was probably bisexual. But she was very discreet about that until in old age when she gave a couple of interviews where she talked about her attraction to beautiful women and so on. Even today it’s relatively rare for bi and lesbian women to be know even within the fashion community let alone within the world at large. It may just be that it’s tough enough to be a woman without having to deal with other people’s prejudice.
A History of Women’s Swimwear
From the eighteenth century to the present day, women’s swimwear has undergone an unparalleled transformation. Changes in women’s swimwear throughout history have reflected sociological and technological factors, thus the garment acts as a barometer of time.
S wimwear is loosely defined as a category of garment often worn when participating in aquatic activities, such as swimming or bathing. Swimwear is expected to fulfil varying requirements. For competitive swimmers, a streamlined and tight-fitting garment which reduces friction and drag in the water is favoured to enhance propulsion and buoyancy. For recreational use, swimwear needs to be fashionable whilst also maintaining its functionality, for example protecting the wearer’s modesty and withstanding the effects of elements such as water and sunlight. Exploring the history of female swimwear, tracing how it has evolved through time and across continents, not only gives an insight into fashion trends and technological advancements in materials and design, but also an exploration of female liberation.
In the eighteenth century, sea bathing became a popular recreational activity. It was believed that there were considerable health benefits to bathing in the sea, thus it was encouraged for both women and men (Kidwell). However, immersing oneself completely was discouraged. This was deemed particularly important for women as activity in water was not seen as sufficiently feminine. For bathing, women would wear loose, open gowns, that were similar to the chemise (Kidwell). These bathing gowns were more comfortable to wear in the water, especially when compared to more restrictive day clothes.
The bathing gown in figure 1 is from 1767 and belonged to Martha Washington, the wife of then-Continental Army commander, and later the first US president, George Washington. The blue and white checked gown is made from linen and is in an unfitted shift style. Small lead weights are sewn into each quarter of the dress, just above the hem. This was to ensure the dress did not float up in the water, helping women to maintain their modesty. It is known that Martha Washington travelled in the summers of 1767 and 1769 to the famed mineral springs in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, to absorb the apparent health benefits.
Fig. 1 - Maker unknown (American). Bathing gown, ca. 1767-1769. Linen, lead. Mount Vernon: George Washington’s Mount Vernon, W-580. Gift of Mrs. George R. Goldsborough, Vice Regent for Maryland 1894. Source: George Washington’s Mount Vernon
In the 19th century, the popularity of recreational aquatic activities surpassed the desire to bathe for health benefits. With this, the loose-fitting chemise gowns became increasingly fitted and more complex, replicating the silhouettes of women’s fashion.
The number one priority for women who took part in water-based activities was to maintain their modesty. Whilst bathing for health benefits fell out of fashion, women still tended to bathe or paddle in water. This was because vigorous exercise in water was not considered ladylike. Women’s swimwear had to reflect this notion of remaining proper, as defined by contemporary society. Bathing outfits would consist of a bathing dress, drawers and stockings, often made of wool or cotton. These fabrics would become heavy when wet and were hardly suitable for any vigorous activities. In this case, it can be said that women’s swimwear, which prohibited ease of movement in water, reflected and maintained the social and physical constraints on women in nineteenth-century patriarchal society.
Fig. 2 - William Heath (British, 1794-1840). Mermaids at Brighton, 1825-1830. Etching. London: The British Museum, 1868,0808.9134. Purchased from Edward Hawkins (estate of). Source: British Museum
Fig. 3 - Designer unknown (American). Bathing suit, 1870s. Wool. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1979.346.18a, b. Gift of The New York Historical Society, 1979. Source: The Met
During the Victorian period, known for its strict moral values, women frequently used bathing machines, as pictured in figure 2, when getting in and out of the sea. Bathing machines were little houses on wheels that would be drawn in and out of deeper water by horses. They provided women with a place to change in privacy before making their way directly into the sea.
Into the 1880s, women continued to wear bathing dresses, as seen in figures 3 and 4. These garments had high-necks, long-sleeves, and knee-length skirts. Linen and wool fabrics were still used. Women often wore belts at the waist to replicate the popular silhouette of the time. Under the bathing dress, women would wear bloomer-like trousers to maintain their modesty.
An alternative female swimwear garment, popularised towards the end of the Victorian era, was the Princess suit (Kennedy 23). These were one-piece garments where the blouse was attached to the trousers. On top, women wore a mid-calf length skirt which diverted attention from the wearer’s figure. The garments tended to be dark colours, which meant onlookers could not tell if the garment was wet. The suits were not the most practical, restricting the wearers’ arm movements and weighing them down in the water.
The Princess suit was a catalyst for the considerable changes to women’s swimwear that was to come. Most obviously, the Princess suit was the beginning of the one-piece swimsuit for women (Fig. 5). Changes began to happen quickly as women’s activities in water began to be more socially acceptable. Firstly, by the 1890s, the trousers of the Princess suit were shortened so they could not be seen under the skirt. The material that was used to create a Princess suit moved away from flannel, which became heavy when wet, towards serge and other knitted materials (Kidwell).
Fig. 4 - Artist unknown. Bathing Costume, from The Delineator, July 1884. Washington D.C.: The Smithsonian Institution, photo 58466. Source: Alamy
Fig. 5 - Maker unknown (American). Bathing suit, 1890-95. Wool, cotton. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1975.227.6. Gift of Theodore Fischer Ells, 1975. Source: The Met
During the twentieth century women’s swimwear underwent significant transformations as a result of the material advancements and increasingly liberal fashion trends.
In the early nineteenth century swimming emerged as a competitive sport. However, its popularity was not solidified until its first appearance at the Olympic Games in 1896. Women were permitted to compete in swimming for the first time at the 1912 Olympics. Annette Kellerman (Fig. 6), a swimmer from Australia, can be credited for shifting social attitudes towards acceptance of female participation in swimming and beginning the modernization of female swimwear. Kellerman was dubbed “the Australian Mermaid” because of her swimming capabilities. She was known for swimming the English Channel and famed for her performances in Hollywood movies (Schmidt and Tay).
In 1905, Annette Kellerman was invited to perform in front of the British Royal Family, however her swimsuit was prohibited as it was tight-fitting and revealed the lower half of her legs. Kellerman refused to compete in an inconvenient and ill-fitting garment which would meet their modesty standards, so she instead sewed black stockings onto her swimsuit, as seen in figure 6. Kellerman encountered trouble again when she competed in Boston. Her swimsuit was deemed to be of indecent exposure however, this was overruled in her favour as the judge agreed that heavy and ill-fitting swimsuits were impractical garments for swimming. This incident was widely publicised in the media, and whilst Kellerman’s action could have had a liberating effect on female swimwear, it unfortunately led to a crackdown on female immodesty in some parts of the world, with police working to enforce strict clothing conduct policies.
Fig. 6 - George Grantham Bain (American, 1865-1944). Miss Annette Kellerman, ca. 1905. Glass negative. Washington D.C.: Library of Congress, LC-B2- 738-5 [P&P]. Source: LOC
Fig. 7 - Jantzen (1910-). Jantzen 1910-2010, 2010. Source: Lingerie Talk
In the 1910s, Jantzen, originally known as the Portland Knitting Company, was the leading producer of bathing suits (Fig. 7). This was the start of technological advancements in the materiality of swimwear. At first, Jantzen produced what they referred to as ‘woollen suits’ for rowing clubs. This became very popular and so Jantzen marketed it to a wider audience. It was not until 1921 that Jantzen referred to the garment as a swimsuit. Speedo, the Australian clothing company, started to experiment with swimwear in 1914. For both sexes, the all-in-one garments tended to have short sleeve or vest style tops with long legs. Whilst social reform had begun, the commercial sector lagged behind. Therefore, both Jantzen and Speedo continued to market their all-in-ones as bathing suits throughout the 1910s.
Following the First World War, women’s swimwear trends began to differ across continents. In America and Europe women wore knitted swimwear which replaced the bathing suit, however there were slight tweaks depending on where you lived. In America, women favoured a practical and sporty look whilst European women opted for sleeker swimsuits which cut closely to the body. Another key difference between the two fashion trends was that women’s swimsuit fashions were accessible to a very large middle class in America, whereas in Europe there were clear class divisions on what women could or could not afford to buy for wearing to the beach. An affluent woman could set herself apart by wearing a silk jersey swimming suit, instead of a knitted one (Kidwell). Kennedy reiterates this when she wrote:
“Both sides of the Atlantic favoured the practical one-piece ‘maillot’, but in France the costume’s legs were shorter in length, the knitted ribwork was more finely woven and the decoration was kept to a minimum.” (34)
Whilst the maillot costumes worn by women were improvements on what they had to wear before the turn of the century, they still had their impracticalities. Due to the materiality of the garment, the knitted swimsuits tended to become misshapen when wet. The fabric absorbed a great deal of water resulting in the elongation and sagging of the swimsuit. These issues often jeopardised the modesty of the women’s swimsuits which concerned inter-war society.
Fig. 8 - Photographer unknown. Vogue Cover, July 1932. Source: Vogue Archive
Fig. 9 - Neyret (French). Bathing Costume, 1937. Machine-knitted wool. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, T.293-1971. Source: V&A
During this period, swimwear began to feature in magazines as fashionable garments (Fig. 8) as fashion designers turned a hand to creating swimwear. Coco Chanel created a one-piece swimsuit, woven from a boucle fabric, that could have almost passed as unisex (Kennedy 48). Chanel’s foray into swimwear brought it into modern fashion. Jean Patou, who worked with his sister Madeleine, was probably the best-known sportswear designer at the time. Swimwear could also be found in the Cannes boutiques of Lanvin, Molyneux, Schiaparelli and Poiret (Kennnedy 53).
The 1930s gave way to the health and fitness movement which favoured fit and healthy female physiques. To maintain their figures, women were encouraged to participate in exercise, though only in ways that were deemed lady-like. Swimming was one of these exercises, which also gave women the opportunity to experiment with tanning. Towards the end of the 1920s, tanned skin was no longer a marker of the working class, but instead became fashionable and conveyed that one holidayed, and was therefore affluent. So much so, in 1932, Elsa Schiaparelli patented a backless swimsuit with a built-in brassiere for the sole purpose of avoiding tan lines from swimsuit straps whilst sunbathing (Snodgrass 566).
The boyish silhouettes were a thing of the past as women sought more shapely figures. The swimsuit in figure 9 is a machine-knit, woollen garment from 1937. Wool was favoured for its slightly elasticated qualities. The swimsuit has thin straps allowing women to catch the sun on their shoulders. There is a ribbed midriff panel which would have provided extra support and enhanced the female figure. The brief-like bottoms maintain the wearer’s modesty.
Lastex yarn (Fig. 10) was invented in 1931 (Kennedy 71). This was a game changer for swimwear once it was regularly used in production. Typically knitted swimsuits were made from wool which would lose its shape when wet. The introduction of Lastex yarn into women’s swimwear meant the garments would hold their form in and out of the water. Lastex would often be combined with artificial fibres such as rayon resulting in a stretchy and shiny fabric (Kennedy 71). Swimsuits could now be produced in a much larger range of colours and prints (Kennedy 71). Furthermore, at the end of the 1940s, Christian Dior launched his New Look which consisted of nipped in waists and full skirts, accentuating the female form. This exciting design shifted the trend to feminine and hourglass figures for women, including in swimwear. In this Lastex yarn advertisement from ca. 1950 (Fig. 10), the figure-hugging swimsuits reflect the fashionable feminine post-war silhouettes.
One of the most significant moments in the history of women’s swimwear was the creation of the bikini in 1946. The design of the bikini is credited to two separate designers who introduced the revolutionary garment at the same time. Jacques Heim, a French fashion designer, created a minimalist two-piece swimming garment in May 1946, called the Atome. Heim’s Atome featured a bra-like top and bottoms which covered the bottom and navel. Later that year, in July 1946, Louis Réard, an engineer turned designer, created what he called the bikini. Réard’s skimpy design, pictured in figure 11, consisted of only four triangles of material that were held together with string. The two designs competed for public attention and whilst Heim’s garment was the first to be worn on a beach, it was the term bikini, as coined by Réard, that stuck.
The rise of the film industry and Hollywood glamour, which celebrated the female form in its entirety, had a big impact on the swimwear industry. In 1952, Bridget Bardot starred in the French film Manina, The Girl in the Bikini. At just 17, Bardot was one of the first women to sport a bikini on the big screen. Towards the end of the decade, in 1956, Bardot appeared bikini-clad again in And God Created Women. These appearances brought the bikini into mainstream media, thus beginning the garment’s transition from outrageous and shocking to everyday. According to Vogue, by the mid-1950s swimwear was seen more as a “state of dress, not undress” (Delis Hill 63), illustrating how liberated fashion trends were gradually being accepted, even if society was not quite ready for the bikini.
Fig. 10 - Artist unknown. Before the bikini: ‘To flatter your figure this summer choose a swimsuit that has the long-lasting elasticity which Lastex yarn provides…’, ca. 1950s. Source: Alamy Stock Photos
Fig. 11 - Photographer unknown (French). Bikini At The Molitor Swimming Pool, 1946. Source: Getty Images
Fig. 12 - Willy Rozier (French, 1901-1983). Bridget Bardot, 1952, Manina, The Girl in the Bikini, with Jean-Francois Calve, Ullstein Bild Dtl, 1952. Source: Getty Images
In terms of competitive swimming, Speedo first introduced nylon into swimwear in 1956 (Kennedy 10). For the Melbourne Olympics in 1956, Speedo created the well-known male Speedo shorts (Kennedy 10). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the technological advances in materiality were prioritised for use in male competitive swimming before female competitive swimming. However, it was not long before women’s competitive swimwear also utilised the hydrodynamic qualities of nylon. In the 1970s Speedo introduced elastane into their swimwear. The combination of elastane and nylon significantly reduced water drag and improved the durability of swimwear.
Fig. 13 - Rudi Gernreich (American, born Austria, 1922–1985). Bathing Suit, 1964. Wool, elastic. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1986.517.13. Gift of Betty Furness, 1986. Source: The Met
Fig. 14 - William Claxton (American, 1927-2008). Peggy Moffit, monokini by Rudi Gernreich, 1964. Source: Feature Shoot
Designers continued to experiment with swimwear throughout the second half of the twentieth century. Emanuel Ungaro, André Courrѐges, Giorgio Armani, Oscar de la Renta and Calvin Klein all started selling ready-to-wear swimwear in the 1960s (Snodgrass 567). In 1964, the designer Rudi Gernreich launched his iconic monokini (Figs. 13-14). The first topless garment, the one-piece consisted of slim-fitting high-waisted bottoms which were held in place by thin halter-neck straps. Gernreich’s monokini thus juxtaposed conservative dress with immodesty.
Fig. 15 - Photographer unknown. Nicolette Sheridan at the 1988 Kauai Lagoons Celebrity Sports Invitational, 1988. Source: Getty Images
Fig. 16 - Photographer unknown. Pamela Anderson, Baywatch, 1995. Source: Harper's Bazaar
Towards the end of the twentieth-century, women’s swimwear became increasingly bold and colourful, a reflection of the fashion trends at the time. Bikinis and swimsuits were still the go-to swimwear, which now featured high-cut legs, strapless bandeau bikini tops and even matching sarongs (Fig. 15). The television show Baywatch, which first aired in 1989, became known for its characters’ bright red, high-cut swimsuits (Fig. 16). This style of swimwear re-popularised the one-piece in this new shape.
Competitive swimming in the twenty-first century has continued to benefit from technological advancements in shapes and materials. In 2008 Speedo launched the LZR Racer, pictured in figures 17 and 18. The body-length swimsuit is made from elastane-nylon and polyurethane. These swimsuits were controversial as many felt the materials being used gave an unfair advantage due to their hydrodynamic properties. Following their use in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where athletes who wore the LZR performed exceptionally well, the regulations for swimwear in the Olympic games were revised. It was concluded that women’s swimwear could only be shoulder to knee-length.
Since the 2000s, many female swimwear trends from the twentieth century are being revisited due to the cyclical nature of fashion. 1950s one-pieces, high-cut Baywatch swimwear and itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny bikinis will often be spotted on the same beach. Women’s swimwear continues to be more than just a functional garment, it must also be fashionable. Something that is new in female swimwear in the twenty-first century is swimwear brands being more inclusive of female sizing. The pressure to look a certain way when poolside is slowly dwindling. Whilst the twentieth-century sought to eradicate laws controlling women’s modesty, perhaps the twenty-first century will be the era when women’s swimwear becomes inclusive for all.
Fig. 17 - Photographer unknown. Speedo Launch Worlds Fastest Swimsuit, 2008. Source: Getty Images
Fig. 18 - Mike Stobe (American). Speedo Swimsuit Launch, 2008. Source: Getty Images
- Delis Hill, Daniel. As Seen in Vogue. Texas: Texas Tech University Press. 2007. https://www.worldcat.org/oclc/1027144384
- Kay, Fiona and Storey, Neil. R. 1940s Fashion. England: Amberley Publishing, 2018. https://www.worldcat.org/oclc/100792685
- Kennedy, Sarah. Vintage Swimwear: A History of Twentieth Century Fashions. London: Carlton. 2010. https://www.worldcat.org/oclc/1089738980
- Kidwell, Claudia Brush. Women’s Bathing and Swimming Costume in the United States. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press. 1968. https://www.worldcat.org/oclc/249672621
- Schmidt, Christine and Tay, Jinna. Undressing Kellerman, Uncovering Broadhurst: The Modern Women and “Un-Australia”, Fashion Theory, Volume 13, Issue 4. https://doi.org/10.2752/175174109X467495
- Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. World Clothing and Fashion: An Encyclopaedia of History, Culture and Social Influence. London, England: Routledge. 2014. https://www.worldcat.org/oclc/881384673
About The Author
Fiona Ibbetson is a London-based researcher in fashion studies and design history. She is a recent graduate of MA Fashion Critical Studies at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London, and has a BA in Anthropology from the University of Exeter.
How L.A. designer Rudi Gernreich shifted fashion politics
Wander the new exhibition “Fearless Fashion: Rudi Gernreich” at Skirball Cultural Center in Brentwood and you’ll quickly see how Rudi Gernreich, a gay, Jewish dancer-turned-designer and an activist, was ahead of his time in terms of the scope of his designs and how he saw the future and humanity evolving.
The retrospective, which runs through Sept. 1, celebrates the work of an innovative designer who challenged thoughts on gender, sexuality and diversity, particularly during the 1960s and ’70s, and who once said, “You are what you decide you want to be.”
Gernreich, who died of lung cancer in 1985, predicted that people wouldn’t distinguish between masculine and feminine in the future and instead would seek comfortable, utilitarian clothes that weren’t overly frilly or ornate. Sound familiar?
Among the 80-plus looks and pieces in the exhibition — which also includes oral histories, letters and other artifacts — are styles that immediately recall the ’60s and ’70s: the loud colors, the geometric designs, the bold cuts. But there are also fashion game-changers that speak to the ideal that people should be free of self-imposed or societal restrictions, including unisex caftans, thong bathing suits and swimsuit tops free of underwire.
One afternoon earlier this week, former model Renée Holt, who later worked in movie animation and special effects, strolled through the Gernreich exhibition remembering her days with the designer. The 72-year-old Glendale resident, who also appears on video in “Fearless Fashion” in an oral history, briefly modeled for Gernreich during the early 1970s when he was promoting his unisex fashion. Together, they took work trips to Chicago Osaka, Japan and elsewhere.
Back then, Holt said, she was close to giving up on modeling when her agent called her about Gernreich. Despite being shy, Holt shaved her head and body and posed nude for Gernreich’s projects. She also appeared in a photo with a shaved head wearing one of Gernreich’s unisex black catsuits.
“I felt a lot less repressed as a woman after being with Rudi and hanging around him and [his partner] Oreste,” she said, adding that the experience of working with Gernreich forever changed her as a person, especially after growing up in a conservative family.
Standing at a display of a mannequin wearing the unisex catsuit, its pose mimicking the bent-leg, bent-back pose that she struck during the photo shoot decades ago, Holt said: “This was me. I don’t remember bending that way. Then again, it was 50 years ago. … I was bendy back then. I tried to do it the other day and ended up in bed for two days.”
Gernreich immigrated to Pasadena in 1938 after fleeing Nazi-occupied Austria. His first job was at a morgue. Later, Gernreich, a founding member of the Mattachine Society, one of the first LGBTQ organizations in the U.S., moved from dance into fashion during the 1940s and ’50s. He worked with the likes of entrepreneur Hattie Carnegie and Hollywood costume designer Edith Head and eventually had a deal with retailer Montgomery Ward. (Toward the end of his life, Gernreich mostly abandoned fashion and got into making gourmet soups and housewares.)
Through his fashion career, Gernreich used his clothes to shift thought and raise awareness. For example, he created thong swimwear for women and men, which is on display in “Fearless Fashion,” to protest the city of Los Angeles prohibiting nude sunbathing in 1974.
Another of Gernreich’s groundbreaking pieces on display is the monokini, a topless swimsuit style he created for Look magazine after he told Women’s Wear Daily in 1962 that “bosoms will be uncovered in five years.”
A back-view photo of the monokini appeared in Look, and a front-facing photo appeared in WWD in 1964 worn by the designer’s collaborator and muse, model Peggy Moffitt. (Moffitt co-authored a 1991 book about Gernreich and his work and loaned many of the pieces in this exhibition.) About 3,000 monokinis were sold, and according to his 1985 obituary in The Times, Gernreich, who had a studio in West Hollywood, received praise for his design at the time but was “denounced by the Vatican, the Kremlin and many American clergymen. He received hundreds of letters, many threatening violence.”
Included in the mix on display are pieces from Gernreich’s statement-making 1970-’71 resort collection, which featured military-inspired pieces outfitted with dog tags and rifles. The pieces were shown after the Kent State shootings in 1970.
Also featured in “Fearless Fashion” is a controversial design — a women’s pantsuit, named after gender-bending actress and singer Marlene Dietrich, from the 1960s. Coming before Yves Saint Laurent’s iconic Le Smoking suit, Gernreich’s suit was banned from appearing at the Coty fashion awards.
It was one of the Gernreich pieces that stopped designer Humberto Leon, co-creator of Opening Ceremony and co-designer of French label Kenzo, in his tracks during a recent visit to the “Fearless Fashion” exhibition for which Leon was a consultant.
“Rudi was so much more than a fashion designer,” said Leon, who became involved in the exhibition about two years ago. “He was a political commentator. He was really reacting to the world, and I think [he was] globally influential. His approach to design and the way he used clothing as commentary on the times is something that was super-inspiring.
“I think there’s a timelessness to all of this,” he said, adding that Gernreich’s work easily could be part of fashion in 2019. (The Gernreich label was relaunched in 2018, and pieces are sold at retailers including Ssense and Farfetch.) “That’s because he was beyond fashion. He was making statements. He was freeing women. He was liberating.”
Zigzagging through the exhibition, Leon said visitors to “Fearless Fashion” should remember to take a closer look at the Gernreich pieces on display and consider the mores of the time and the news of the day.
“He really challenged all of those ideas,” Leon said, adding that people today would less likely be outraged by a thong or pantsuit. “The definition of masculinity and femininity were very blurred [in Gernreich’s work], and I think that’s so modern today.”