Monday, September 27, 2010

Rudi Gernreich in the 1950s

Rudi Gernreich for Walter Bass dress and jacket, 1956.

You may be familiar with Rudi Gernreich's swimsuits from the 1960s, or the dresses bearing his name by Harmon Knitwear, but did you know he was making a name for himself as early as 1951?

Gernreich's early forays into the fashion world included stints in theater costume design, advertising and textile design. In 1949, Gernreich tried designing women's fashion for the first time. He produced a collection, but was unable to sell it, as he had no knowledge of manufacturing or production. In 1951, he was hired by Morris Nagel to design for Versatogs, but Gernreich left the job when Nagel insisted he stick to the Versatogs formula. Gernreich later described his stint with the company as a "disaster".

Rudi Gernreich for Walter Bass linen dress with felt jacket, 1954.

Enter Walter Bass, a fellow Viennese immigrant who made women's suits in Beverly Hills. In 1952, he and Gernreich teamed up to produce Rudi's "crazy" designs, which included loose-cut dresses in ginghams and rayons that were tightly belted. The dresses were inventive and unusual for the time.

Rudi Gernreich for Walter Bass wool jersey trapeze dress, 1958.

Jack Hanson owned Jax in Beverly Hills, a store that had an avant garde clientele. He felt Gernreich's designs were perfect for his store, and pushed Gernreich for more. The association between the three, Hanson, Bass, and Gernreich, was a successful one for 7 years.

Rudi Gernreich for Westwood Knitting wool knit maillot, 1959.

At the same time, Gernreich was designing swimwear for Westwood Knitting. When he started with Westwood, women's swimsuits had stiff inner construction with boned linings. Gernreich reintroduced the world to elasticized wool knits that clung to a woman's body without constricting it.

Rudi Gernreich for Westwood Knitting wool knit swimsuit with back cut-out, 1959.

His basic button front maillots were popular design that Westwood Knitting produced year after year. He also experimented with unusual fabric combinations and cut-outs, a precursor to his sensation-making designs of the 60s.

Rudi Gernreich shoes labeled Ruvals, 1959.

In 1958, Gernreich designed women's shoes for Genesco. Those shoes were sold under several brand names, and the partnership lasted until 1960.

In 1959, Gernreich ended his partnerships with Walter Bass and Westwood Knitting to form his own company, G.R. Designs, Inc. (the name was changed to Rudi Gernreich, Inc. in 1964). His company produced semi-custom clothing, which featured several basic designs and a swatchbook. Women could order a style in whatever fabric and color they wanted.

Also in 1959, Gernreich partnered with Harmon Knitwear in Wisconsin to produce his swimwear and a less expensive dress line.

Please note: Biographical information about Rudi Gernreich is copyright of Couture Allure and may not be copied without permission.


Laurie said...

So interesting. I wish the photos were more clear. a trapeze dress as early as 1958! Who'da known! Thanks for sharing.

Couture Allure Vintage Fashion said...

I wish so too, Laurie, but these are old newspaper photos, and they just don't scan well. Sorry! I was surprised that the trapeze dress was so early too.

deang said...

That is so cool! You can see the dance influence he's known for in the easier shapes and more minimized construction than was typical for the time. And I had no idea he'd ever done shoes!

Another designer whose pre-fame clothes are very interesting is Pierre Cardin, whose 1950s designs look typically 1950s except for carefully geometric seaming, a hint at the direction he'd take during his 1960s period of greatest fame.

And I think 1958 was the year that that shape of dress began to be called the trapeze. That was the year that St. Laurent presented his first collection for the late Christian Dior and it featured the Trapeze Line, which Gernreich was probably doing a version of. In 1955, Dior had presented his A-line collection, which contained some dresses that flared from mid-bust to just below the knee, a shape very similar to what would be called trapeze three years later. Am I right in assuming that most people associate trapeze dresses with the mid- to late 60s, in mini lengths?

Couture Allure Vintage Fashion said...

Yes, deang, you're right. At least today, any dress we call a trapeze is from the 60s mini era. I love Cardin's early designs, as well as his later ones. I'll have to pull out my Dior book and take a look at some of St. Laurent's Trapeze Line dresses. Thanks for posting!

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