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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Rudi Gernreich Master of the Topless Swimsuit

Weekend find!! The only thing I purchased at an estate sale this weekend, but it certainly made my week.

This article titled "Fashion's Best Joke on Itself in Years" by Shana Alexander is reprinted from the July 10, 1964 Life Magazine.

July 10, 1964 Life Magazine

Once backstage at The Folies Bergere I watched a nude English girl eating a tomatoe sandwich. Waiting to be towed out on stage, she perched atop a wagonful papier mache vegetables, balancing a three foot bunch of fake bananas on her head with her free hand. Suddenly her sandwich slipped and splattered down her bare front. "Blasted tomatoes! Help!" she shrieked - but instead of simply handing the poor girl a handkerchief, two dozen hard bitten stagehands froze dead in their tracks. Nudity glimpsed suddenly in an unexpected context - smeared with tomatoes for example - can evidently shock anybody, even a Follies stagehand.

I was reminded of the blasted tomatoe girl recently when the topless bathing suit burst upon the waiting world. But once you get over the shock, which takes about 10 minutes, the new suit begins to strike you as the most absurd garment since these two rascally weavers manufactured the emperor's new cloths. The suit is no good for swimming, because it falls off, and it is no good for sunning because it leaves disastrous strap marks. it is no good for getting your pictures in the papers any more because too many people already tried that, and anyhow the cameraman is likely to turn timid and photograph you from the back. As for the front view of the suit, it proves only that whatever else she may be, a bare breasted woman in broad daylight is highly unnerving.

In his Los Angeles workroom Gernreich works over sketch of swimsuit with half the top erased.

But the topless suit is good for something. It is good for connoisseurs of pop art, for aficionados of the absurd, and especially for a high old fashioned laugh. (One funny thing about toplessness is that it doesn't really have much to do with breasts. Breasts of course are not absurd; topless swimsuits are. lately people keep getting the two things mixed up.) Altogether, toplessness is fashions best joke in years.

The authors of the joke are a pair of high fashion personalities named Rudi Gernreich and Peggy Moffitt, who stand to reap an unexpected $20,000. this year from the gag. The suit was invented not for money or publicity, but for kicks. Rudi Gernreich is a famous California fashion designer who specializes in avant-garde sportswear, and Peggy Moffitt is his special model, an outlandish and adoring Tribly in red eyeshadow and pale make up who is usually seen smoking long, dark-brown Ciggarettellos. Rudi and Peggy proudly call themselves Now People, and their struggle to remain Now People and avoid the hateful obscurity of becoming mere Then People occupies their every waking moment.

1954 - Suits worn by Peggy Moffit show evolution of designs. This suit without inner bra is now a classic.

"Fashion is moving so fast today that by the time you predict something for the future, it's already here, says Rudi, who certainly has reason to know. Last spring he remarked rather casually that if things kept going the way they were within five years women would throw away the tops of their bathing suits altogether. But for the Now Person, thought is action and the designer suddenly found himself slammed against his drawing board in the horrifying realization that, if the topless suit was really almost at hand, his status as a designer demanded that he, Rudi, design it. It was a matter of honor, a gauntlet flung in his own face. "It was my prediction" he says. "For the sake of history I didn't want Pucci to do it first."

1960 - Loosely fitted suit of silk jersey, also made without a bra or inner lining, clung to bosom when wet.

The suit turned out to be a nightmare to design. "I just don't believe in it," Rudi admits now. It's an illogical thing. I really did thin people with beautiful bodies would drop their bikini tops. But just a bikini bottom would be the end of design." Be predicting toplessness he very nearly aced himself out of business. Every sketch turned out to look like trunks or, worse yet, boxer shorts. Finally, in desperation, he added straps to the boxer shorts, "for pure decor," and sent the thing off to the cutters.

1961 - Bikinis became a Gernreich specialty, and over the years he kept making them briefer and briefer.

More problems. The knitwear cutters couldn't figure the unaccustomed proportions. The first mock up came out only navel high. Another bikini bottom! Their second try was too high waisted. But, as in all good fairy tales, the third try was just right. Now who could be found to wear the thing?

1963 - Last year Gernreich cut the sides of the bathing suit away, leaving bosom half bare. It sold fairly well.

Enter Peggy, trailing clouds of Ciggarettello smoke and musing, "Either you do a thing or you don't. Besides, if I don't do it, Suzy Parker might doit first." But Peggy insisted on doing the thing a certain way. She would wear the suit only for her husband, Bill Claxton, to photograph. She would not model it. "Modeling has to do with illusion, and let's face it - this is a pretty realistic suit."

1964 - Last winter Gernreich designed this model, with arms covered and neckline plunging to waist.

The Now People spent hours planning their strategy before taking the suit to New York, along with Rudi's Fall collection. The collection included a transparent shirt, about which Rudi says, "You see the beauty best because the illusion of body is always more exciting that the real thing." In line with this philosophy, Rudi and Peggy planned only to show pictures of the topless suit, never to model it. In fact, they had not the slightest intention of ever manufacturing it. There was just one suit: it was a prediction, not a product.

1964 - And here is the topless suit that started the whole thing. "I really rattled the world" says Rudi.

But by the time Rudi and Peggy hit new York, the topless news was already out. Press and TV were clamoring for interviews, the fashion world was in an uproar, and the knitwear manufacturer was frantic. A few daring stores offered the suits because a few daring customers wanted them. Before you knew it orders had come in for over 1000 suits at $24.00 a piece. He had to manufacture the thing. Now people can not stand in one place. Reluctantly, Rudi gave the command: knit.

We've got the first suit shown in our store at Glamoursurf.

Even as the topless suits are being snapped up across the land, one question lingers: Why buy it? There seems to be two reasons. One ids the fashion feedback effect - fashion conscious women buy it because Rudi Gernreich designed it. The other reason is strictly feminine. If a woman is going to appear naked, she somehow prefers to appear naked in something designed for the purpose, not in half of last years bikini. Her need to buy the topless suit is the last atavistic remnant of the old ensemble urge, the thing that makes her buy the shoes to match the purse to go with the hat that complements the dress.

Today not only Rudi and Peggy have got over the shock of the suit. Other fashion models, once as modest as Peggy, rip off their bras when Rudi enters the dressing room, to prove they're no more prudes that Peggy is. All unwitting, the harried designer finds himself the Bolivar of the bosom. Nowadays, when he steps backstage at a fashion show, he is usually confronted by a forest of bare breasts. "But," he says, "sex is in the person, not in what she puts on."

And he is right. The topless suit isn't lewd, though the attitude with which it is worn may be. Sex isn't what a woman puts on - or what she takes off, either.

More on Rudi Fashions and reactions from East to West coming tomorrow, stay tuned!


Lizzy said...

What fun! A topless swimsuit! They are all beautiful though - I especially love the second one - they really emphasise the classic curvaceous female shape. I love them!!
Thanks for posting them!
Have a lovely week

Kitsch-y-Cool Vintage said...

Love the article Pam! I always adore the swimwear you feature - I've only ever once gotten my hands on a Rudi G. original - it was a one-of-kind dress made especially for Gertrud Natzler. I sold it for her 80-ish niece who had gobs of original Natzler artwork and other Rudi pieces of her own...GASP! I was so jealous!

Glamoursurf said...

Thanks Bertie, aren't they FAB? I like all of them too but I think my favorite is the long sleeve. Just so unexpected in swimwear.

Thanks Christi, ohh I would have loved to have seen that artwork and the Rudi's too!

mamafrog said...

I remember seeing the original picture in a magazine, I think it was Life, when I was younger. I was shocked but it was the 60's and we were beginning to become very blase' about things like that. I was 10 that year so I didn't have enough figure to realize how scandalous it really was!

Andy Morales said...

I'm really glad I discovered this gem of a blog. The Posts are well researched, fun, and full of side-snippets of info; along with amazing photographs that set the mood of the content. I thoroughly enjoyed the Gernreich post!

Glamoursurf said...

Thank you, I'm glad you found us too!