"Prior to the Sixties, clothes were clothes. Nothing else. Then … I realized you could say things with clothes. Design was not enough. I became … interested in clothes as sociological statements."-Rudi Gernreich

“Prior to the Sixties, clothes were clothes. Nothing else. Then … I realized you could say things with clothes. Design was not enough. I became … interested in clothes as sociological statements.”—Rudi Gernreich

If you like gorgeous fashions, you won’t want to miss the terrific exhibit on view at the Cincinnati Art Museum. “The Total Look” is a real treat and a great opportunity to learn about a famous designer who revolutionized American fashion in the 1960s and 70s. It’s at the museum through May 24 and admission is free.

Rudi Gernreich was best known for designing the topless bathing suit, but he also created dramatic and minimalist garments in bright colors and geometric patterns. His primary model and muse was Peggy Moffitt who’s loaned her extensive personal collection of Gernreich’s clothing to the traveling exhibit. Some of Moffitt’s fashions were pieces she had modeled, others were samples the designer had gifted to her.

In addition to more than 60 stunning fashion-forward ensembles, the exhibit features the first fashion video ever made from 1967, and 20 photographs by Moffitt’s late husband, photographer William Claxton. The show was organized by Cameron Silver, fashion historian and founder of a vintage fashion shop, and was previously shown in Los Angeles at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Pacific Design Center and at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) Museum of Art.

The Cincinnati Art Museum has added eight Gernreich designs from its own collection, including his “No-bra Bra.” Another new addition is a collection of 13 photographs by British hairdresser Vidal Sassoon whose “Sassoon bob” complemented the mod fashions and completed Gernreich’s “total look.”

Curating the Cinci show

Cynthia Amneus, chief curator for the Cincinnati Art Museum, said she has been interested in doing a show of Gernreich’s work for quite some time.

“He is such an important American designer and most people don’t know his name,” she said. “But he is so innovative, so avant-garde and so ahead of his time, that I feel he is a really important American designer.”

Amneus said fashion, like decorative art, often ends up at the bottom of the art museum totem pole. “But there’s nothing different about the artistic skills required to design a garment than designing a piece of Rookwood pottery or creating a print,” she insists. “Because dress is so familiar to us, it’s sometimes hard to equate it with art as an art form. But while a lot of people are making pretty dresses, when you have a designer who pushes the edges and creates garments that are really artistic in their intent, it becomes a different thing.”

When you view the mannequins on display in Cincinnati, you’ll have no doubt that they are wearing art.

More about Gernreich

Amneus said Gernreich, who died in 1985, was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1922 to a Jewish family. When Austria was taken over by the Third Reich, he and his mother emigrated to Los Angeles. In the 1940s, he danced with Lester Horton Dance Troupe which Amneus said greatly informed what he was destined to do.

“It was about comfortable clothing and freeing the body,” she said. After doing some textile designing and costuming dance troupes, Gernreich started doing some fashion designing in the 1950s. “He didn’t have any training for fashion, he was self-taught. But he went to art school and when you look at his clothing, his silhouettes are absolutely simple: knit tubes, simple shapes based on Asian cuts.”

After being introduced to Jack Hanson who had a hip boutique in L.A., Gernreich sold his collections there. His first collection sold out in an hour. At first, he became known for his bathing suits.

“He became very involved in the contemporary art scene at the time and definitely thought of himself as an artist,” said Amneus. “His artist friends did too. He looked at what was going on in society and created work related to it.”

Among Gernreich’s innovations:He was the first designer to introduce the mini skirt to the United States.He was the first designer to include clear vinyl inserts in his garments.He created the topless bathing suit.He was the first designer to design a trapeze dress.He was the first designer to design a see-through chiffon blouse.He created the thong.He was one of the first designers to create unisex clothing.

“Rudi challenged society to change with his fashion. His designs were intended to equalize the sexes,” explained Amneus. “One of his main ideas was to free women’s bodies and he suggested women not wear bras under his clothing at a time women still wore boned, wire-structured long-line bras. He created a simple sheer nylon cup with no structure that was a departure from the pointed look popular at the time, this gave you a much more natural look.”

Amneus said Gernreich was very progressive in thinking about clothing in a different way. Although he primarily designed for a young audience, he also designed caftans for those who didn’t have a perfect body. “Both men and women can wear caftans,” she explained. “He abstracted the body by creating loose garments printed with bright colors and geometric prints. Then you could pay attention to the person in the body.”

Gernreich, said Amneus, believed we should be going to a point where we all wear the same thing. Said Gernreich in 1970: “Fashion will go out of fashion.”


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