Monokinis and Miniskirts: MOCA Traces the Career of 1960s Fashion Pioneer Rudi Gernreich

Peggy Moffitt modeling a Rudi Gernreich design, 1966
(Photo by William Claxton)

In the 1960s, fashion designer Rudi Gernreich, his model and muse Peggy Moffitt, and her husband, photographer William Claxton worked as a symbiotic trio — Gernreich dressing Moffitt in his then-futuristic ensembles and Claxton photographing Moffitt in the looks. The threesome fluttered about the Los Angeles art scene, defining the look of the period. Gernreich “invented the modern way of dressing for the latter half of the 20th century just as Chanel had done for the earlier part of the century,” writes Moffitt, according to a press release.  

A new exhibition at Los Angeles’s MOCA Pacific Design Center, “The Total Look: The Creative Collaboration Between Rudi Gernreich, Peggy Moffitt, and William Claxton,” on view through May 20, traces the relationship between the three figures and their work together. The show includes Gernreich pieces from Moffitt’s collection, along with photographs and films by Claxton.

The Los Angeles-based fashion designer pushed boundaries again and again during the 1960s, first with the monokini, a breast-baring swimsuit, and then with his unisex designs. “Gernreich was the first fashion designer since Christian Dior to become a household name,” writes Hunter Drohojowska-Philp in her 2011 book “Rebels in Paradise: The Los Angeles Art Scene in the 1960s” (Henry Holt).   

Gernreich graced the cover of Time magazine’s December 1, 1967 issue, the headline proclaiming: “The miniskirt is here to stay (till spring, anyway).” But his influence was not limited to the fashion industry. A strong figure in the booming Los Angeles 1960s art world, he stood among some 45 seminal cultural figures like Ed Ruscha, Frank Gehry, Judy Chicago, and Claes Oldenburg in a 1968 portrait to promote an exhibition of Los Angeles artworks in Sacramento’s capitol building. ?

Gernreich slowly faded out of America’s cultural zeitgeist after his death in 1985. Perhaps his vision was too futuristic for the United States, as other American designers like Diane von Furstenberg entered the spotlight, producing more commercial clothing.

According to MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch, who considers Gernreich a pioneer, the exhibit is about more than just the clothes. “It’s not to show a fashion exhibition,” he told ARTINFO in October. “It’s to show how art has expanded into fashion and fashion expands into art, and to also show some of the history with that with Gernreich.”

Click on the photo gallery to see images from “The Total Look: The Creative Collaboration Between Rudi Gernreich, Peggy Moffitt, and William Claxton,” on view at MOCA Pacific Design Center through May 20, 2012.