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Commentary : Retrospective Keeps Alive the Gernreich Genius for Controversy

August 02, 1985|BETTIJANE LEVINE | Times Staff Writer

It has been 21 years since Rudi Gernreich devised the topless swimsuit, and still the controversy rages. The swimsuit has outlived Gernreich, who died April 21, and it will probably outlive everyone reading this, because it has been sealed in a time capsule (between a birth control pill and a Bible) that will not be exhumed for generations.

The controversy now is whether the topless will be shown on a model (live and bare breasted) at the Gernreich retrospective Aug. 13 at the Wiltern Theatre.

After a decade of topless barmaids, nude beachniks, sexually explicit films and centerfolds--not to mention a Pilobolus ballet performed at UCLA's Royce Hall by male dancers without clothes--a moment's look at a model with uncovered breasts could not be cause for chaos. Or could it?

It is. Members of the Los Angeles Fashion Group, who are producing the gala to benefit the Rudi Gernreich Design Scholarship Fund, cannot agree on how to show the 1964 suit.

Gernreich's famous sooty-eyed model, Peggy Moffitt--who wore the suit for a photograph taken by her husband, William (Bill) Claxton, but never in a show--has said she will resign from the committee if the topless is modeled live on the Wiltern Theatre stage.

"Rudi did the suit as a social statement," said Moffitt, who is creative director of the event.

"It was an exaggeration that had to do with setting women free," she said. "It had nothing to do with display, and the minute someone wears it to show off her body, you've negated the entire principle of the thing. I modeled it for a photograph, which was eventually published around the world, because I believed in the fashion statement. Also, because the three of us--Rudi, Bill and I--felt that the photograph presented the statement accurately. I was offered $15,000 to let Playboy publish that photograph of me in the suit. I turned it down as unthinkable."

Sarah Worman, vice president of Robinson's and regional director of the Fashion Group, disagrees.

"I can't believe this; it's 1964 all over again," she said. "I agree the suit was a social statement--the most prophetic ever made by any designer in the world. It was his most brilliant concept, and from it grew all sorts of things we now take for granted. Why take the single most important idea he ever had--the one that changed the way women dressed all over the Western world--and refuse to show it on a model, when we are showing everything else he ever did on live models?"

The irony of this controversy is, as it always was, that the surface of Gernreich's genius is camouflaging the substance of it.

In the world of fashion, only a few designers anywhere can claim to have come up with anything original, much less anything original that lasts beyond their own life span. And Gernreich, the Viennese-born quintessential Californian, is at the top of the list.

Although widely revered by fashion insiders for his genius, he never really got the measure of public homage he deserved from the millions of women who directly benefited from his insights. Most who know his name associate it with the topless--and not with the idea behind it or the progress in women's fashion that it spawned.

But Gernreich explained why he designed the suit: "Every girl I knew was offended by the dirty-little-boy attitude of the American male toward the American bosom. I was aware that the great masses of the world would find the topless shocking and immoral. I couldn't help feel the implicit hypocrisy that made something in one culture immoral and in another perfectly acceptable."

Artistic Statement

His topless was an artistic statement against women as sex objects, much as Picasso painted "Guernica" as a statement against war.

Whether he would have wanted it shown on a live model seems irrelevant. He would undoubtedly have appreciated public acknowledgment, at last, that his suit profoundly affected women's way of dress.

From the topless concept he proceeded in his philosophic fashion meanderings to create the "no-bra" bra. It was the first soft, unconstructed, natural-fitting bra. And the two statements together signaled the end of American bosoms buttressed like bridges, the end of women trussed up like Christmas turkeys in undergarments designed to mold them, like plastic, into caricatures of the female form.

His no-bra was the prototype of all the contemporary bras on the market. And at the time, it saved the life of the American undergarment industry, which was faced with masses of rebellious women who would rather go braless than settle for the insulting harnesses they'd had to accept for years.

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