Inventors of Gay: Rudi Gernreich
August 8, 1922–April 21, 1985
For some, Gernreich was a kooky, flamboyant fashion designer who invented the topless swimming suit. For others he was one of the founders of the modern LGBT movement. And for still others he was a visionary in unisex gender expression. For us, Gernreich was foremost a futurist who could work in multiple disciplines, always aiming toward a progressive, almost utopian outcome. He saw LGBT and gender equality as an inevitable product of an enlightened society.
Born in Austria to a creative and intellectual family, he was forced to flee by the late ’30s due to Nazi occupation. He settled in Los Angeles where he was a professional dancer, then a fabric and textile designer, and eventually opened his own fashion house.
His roots in the dance world led him to design for the body in motion, experimenting with futuristic fabrics and plastics, and simple, body conscious lines. Modern workout clothes of the 1980s with super graphics and spandex were inspired by Gernreich’s earlier works, as were gay fashion designers Thierry Mugler, Claude Montana and most of all, Stephen Sprouse.
Having been convicted in an entrapment case, he became one of the five original members of the Mattachine Society, the gay-rights organization founded by Harry Hay, then his lover.
In 2009, Gernreich and the Mattachine Society became the subjects of the play The Temperamentals by Jon Maran. Actor Michael Urie, who played Gernreich, received a Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Lead Actor.
But Gernreich played a more neutral stance about his own private life. He never declared himself publicly. He did not come out, as it were, until after his death when his estate and that of his partner of 31 years, Oreste Pucciani, provided an endowment for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Gernreich the brilliant colorist always wore black so he could "hear himself think."
George Hoyningen—Huene, gay photographer
Jean-Paul Satre— existentialist author
William Claxton— photographer
Peggy Moffit— model and muse
Why we care:
Gernreich’s belief in physical comfort and freedom for the female body verged on political. He believed there was an empowering effect for women in his unisexual fashions. A sexual futurist, he eschewed 1950s prudishness about the body and his fashions were the look of the new adventurer in the sexual revolution.
And, oh yeah-- Mattachine Society!
"Inventors of Gay" is our series on important people and cultural influences in LGBT history that helped create the culture we enjoy today.