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Articles on Vintage Swimwear > Rudi Gernreich - A designer before his time

7 Sep 2008

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September 2008 Newsletter
Rudi Gernreich - A Designer Before His Time

Colliers magazine Gernreich for Westwood SwimsuitRudi Gernreich was a pioneer before his time in sportswear and swimwear. Gernreich made his name with swimsuits, soon followed by belted shift dresses and simple knit styles.

Gernreich was born in Austria on August 8, 1922. He and his mother fled Hitler's growing power by emigrating to the United States following the Anschluss of 1938. After studying art and a brief stint as a professional dancer, Gernreich began working in the fashion industry in the 1950s. During the 1950s Gernreich made his mark in the fashion world by designing the first unstructured women's swimsuit, a form-fitting one-piece with no wire or other supports.

Influenced by Bauhaus functionalism, Gernreich conceived a body-based dressing with coordinated underwear, celebrating the unrestrained movement of the body based on his early involvement with Lester Horton's modern dance troupe. This interest in liberating the body from the limitations of clothing surfaced in his early swimwear designs of 1952 in which he eliminated the complicated boned and underpinned interior construction that had been obligatory in the 1950s. He revived the knitted swimsuit or "maillot" of the 1920s, which he elasticized to follow the shape of the body. These experiments were continued in his knitted tube dresses of 1953.

While he achieved modest success, it was not until the swinging 1960s that his natural avant-garde tendencies were able to surface. In the early 1960s Gernreich opened a Seventh Avenue showroom in New York where he showed his popular designs for Harmon knitwear and his own more expensive line of experimental garments. During the decade he acquired a reputation for being the most radical designer in America; his designs included the jacket with one notched and one rounded lapel, tuxedos made of white satin, and the topless monokini bathing suit of 1964, which reflected the new vogue for topless sunbathing. Gernreich cropped the swimsuit just above the waist and supported it with a V-shaped pair of thin, over-the-shoulder straps, thus exposing the breasts on either side.

Gernreich was also responsible for developing the concept of unisex, believing that as women achieved more freedom in the 1960s, male dress would emerge from the aesthetic exile into which it had been cast in the 19th century. He conceived interchangeable clothes for men and women. He also invented the thong bathing suit.

Gernreich was interested less in the details and decorations of clothes and more in how they looked in motion. In the 1950s he was designing relaxed, comfortable clothes fabricated out of wool, jersey, and other malleable materials, usually in solid colors or geometric shapes and checks. During the next decade he went on to use unusual fabrics and bold color disharmonies such as orange and blue or red and purple. It is worth noting that Rudi Gernreich persisted in using wool throughout his career. His ability to mix old and new, lighthearted and classical distinguishes all his designs.

Gernreich designed swimsuits without interior foundations for Bass from 1952-1959, and swimwear for Westwood Knitting Mills from 1955-1960. Harmon Knitwear, Inc. in Marinette, Wis. made most of Gernreich's swim-suits and all of his knitted dresses in the 60's.

50's Rudi Gernreich for Westwood SwimsuitRudi Gernreich for Westwood Swimsuit


Glamoursurf has recently acquired a mid 50's Rudi Gernreich for Westwood coral pink one piece button front wool swimsuit. It is shown here as well as above on the cover of Colliers Magazine dated June 8, 1956. You can also see this suit here in a retrospective exhibition which was held in 2001 at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania.

Celebrate your inner Bombshell!



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