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Rudi Gernreich exhibit at Skirball Center explores fashion, gender fluidity

Rudi Gernreich Mattachine Society

Rudi Gernreich (in black necktie) and Harry Hay, upper left, with original members of the gay rights organization The Mattachine Society in 1950 in Silver Lake, California. Photo: J. Gruber Papers, James C. Hormel LGBTQIA Center, San Francisco Public Library.

Rudi Gernreich was an early pioneer in the gay rights movement and a trailblazing fashion designer who embraced gender fluidity in the 1960s.

‘Fearless Fashion’

Gernreich’s life and fashions will be on display at The Skirball Cultural Center in “Fearless Fashion: Rudi Genreich.”

The exhibit, opening Thursday and closing September 1, features more than 80 Gernreich ensembles including accessories, original sketches, photographs, ephemera, and newly filmed interviews with friends and colleagues.

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Rudi Gernreich

On Thursday at the Skirball in a “Fashion Foward” panel discussion, fashion designer Humberto Leon, the exhibit’s creative adviser, and LGBTQ activist-prolific songwriter Justin Tranter will discuss Gernreich’s influence and fashion’s impact on personal freedom, inclusion, and diversity.

“He pushed the cultural boundaries with art,” Tranter, who identifies as gender non-conforming, told Q Voice News. “Fashion, sitcoms, and pop music can push things forward without people realizing it.

“He had the mission of freeing the world from boundaries with his art,” Tranter said. “I try to live my life that way. I don’t always succeed.”

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Rudi Gernreich Skirball Center

Dancer Serena Richardson wears a costume designed by Rudi Gernreich in 1976 for the Lewitzky Dance Company’s Inscape production. Photo: Daniel Esgro.

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On the runway, Gernreich was innovative and dynamic. He introduced unisex designs, the first thong bathing suit, and the top less monokini.

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The Mattachine Society

Out of the closet, Gernreich, and his then boyfriend, Harry Hay, were founding members in 1950 of The Mattachine Society. The Silver Lake-based collective was one of the earliest groups in the United States fighting for gay rights for men.

Gernreich, who died in 1985 at the age of 62 from lung cancer, explained his boundary pushing fashion sense in a 1971 quote.

“Fashion is not expected to be a social message,” Gernreich said. “A designer is not expected to say something other than, ‘Here is another dress.’ But I would not be in this if that were the only thing required of me.”

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About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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