Topless suit made fame for designer

December 04, 1991|By Liz Rittersporn | Liz Rittersporn,New York Daily News

NEW YORK - When it was rare for fashion designers to make news beyond the fashion pages, a California designer named Rudi Gernreich created a shock heard 'round the world.

The Soviet Union thought it presaged the end of morality in the United States. Clerics were up in arms. It was outlawed in Holland, Denmark and Greece. The pope banned it.

It was a topless bathing suit, and the year was 1964.

It was a modest garment compared with Rudi's 1981 pubikini, which bared a whole lot more and failed to make even one headline.

Its inventor hoped eventually to do away with clothes entirely, at least on the young and beautiful, a somewhat self-defeating desire for a designer.

Rudi Gernreich was and still is unique in that most of his ideas came from his own head, not from trade papers or fabric salesmen or gossip from Europe.

Until he closed up shop in 1981, he took delight in severing ties with the past. He disliked "retro" things with a passion, and more than anything, he wanted his apparel to be modern. The result and he would have demurred at such grandiosity was something akin to art.

An essay in "The Rudi Gernreich Book" (Rizzoli International Publications. $50), by Los Angeles Times Syndicate fashion editor Marylou Luther, evaluates the Gernreich mystique and looks back at the "look, Ma, no top" controversy. Luther claims that Gernreich's aim was to make a social statement about the emancipation of women.

Whether this is true or not, she points out that the topless swimsuit was actually an answer to a dare by Susanne Kirtland of Look magazine, who had already witnessed breast-baring on European beaches.

Rather than be scooped by another designer, Gernreich came through with his revealing and earth-shaking prototype. Until then, he had been best known for his simple relatively modest black knit swimsuits.

Gernreich didn't actually intend to manufacture or sell his topless suit to the public, but demand was great, and more than 3,000 were sold at the then-high price of $25 each.

But that's only one part of the book. Authors William Claxton, a photographer, and his wife, Peggy Moffitt Rudi's muse and favorite model demonstrate the amazing "visual" they created with Gernreich in sculptural black and white and colored studies, and in personal recollections.

In the book, Gernreich's amazing modernity is apparent. Some of his ideas are still making news in today's fashion: pantsuits, quilted coats, motorcycle jackets, thong bikinis, monokinis, miniskirts, colored tights and see-through blouses.

What he created always carried his own stamp. His clothes needed no labels. And although Gernreich died relatively recently, in 1985, he is almost as remote as the great French 19th-century couturier Charles Frederick Worth, to today's young designers.

Pity.

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