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Rudi Gernreich: Fashion Designer and Figure of LGBTQ+ History

a gallery space featuring mannequins dressed in pop art-inspired garments with bright colors and patterns framing Roy Lichtenstein's work

Rudi Gernreich was a Los Angeles-based fashion designer who made international waves with his avant-garde approach to fashion in the 1960s and ‘70s. A Jewish refugee from Nazi-occupied Austria, he emigrated as a teenager with his mother to Los Angeles in 1938.

In 1950 he quietly co-founded one of the earliest American gay movement organizations in the United States: the Mattachine Society. Originally formed by a small group of close friends and romantic partners, the Mattachine Society began as a private club of sorts where men could meet and discuss their personal experiences with other men. They coined the term “homophile” (from the Greek root words meaning “same (sex) love”) to describe their burgeoning sense of collective identity, as the contemporary term “gay” had yet to catch on as a public descriptor. According to Craig Kaczorowski, writing for the LGBTQ Archive:

Rudi Gernreich in 1951 at a Mattachine Society meeting. Jim Gruber. Wikimedia Commons.

“By sharing their personal experiences as gay men and analyzing homosexuals in the context of an oppressed cultural minority, the Mattachine founders attempted to redefine the meaning of being gay in the United States. They devised a comprehensive program for cultural and political liberation.”


(left to right) Mattachine Society Founders Paul Bernard, Chuck Rowland, Bob Hull, Stan Witt, Rudi Gernreich, Harry Hay (top), Dale Jennings (light tie). 1951, Jim Gruber. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1950 Gernreich began dating a man named Harry Hay, the originator of the idea for the organization. Hay shared his original written statement (referred to as “The Call”) with Gernreich, who replied that it was “the most dangerous thing I ever read” and immediately agreed to offer financial support for the nascent organization. He would not lend his name though, being referred to only as “R.” Hay’s “Call” eventually turned into the Statement of Missions and Purpose for the society. Again, Kaczorowski:

“This Statement stands out in the history of the gay liberation movement because it identified and incorporated two important themes. First, Mattachine called for a grassroots movement of gay people to challenge anti-gay discrimination; and second, the organization recognized the importance of building a gay community.”


The Mattachine Society grew to include thousands of members and spread across the country forming chapters in cities like San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Denver, Washington DC, and more. It eventually dissolved as the more radical politics of the gay liberation movement took hold following the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in New York.

While Gernreich offered financial and moral support for what we know as LGBTQ+ rights today, he never admitted to being gay as he feared it would hurt his fashion business. Yet Gernreich believed in liberating women’s (and men’s) bodies from restrictive fashion norms. By creating form-fitting clothes allowing for ease of movement, he used fashion as a social statement for advancing ideas about sexual freedom.


Gernreich made innovations to underwear, beachwear, and ready-to-wear that continue to be in use today. While his name may not be found on bands of underwear like those of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, he did invent the thong. And the “No Bra” bra. And the monokini. Look those up, and you’ll get a taste for Gernreich’s often controversial contributions to American fashion reflecting a decidedly queer sensibility. He also made what is considered to be the first fashion video, Basic Black. It’s far out!

Gernreich enjoyed a long and varied career in fashion, as well as a long-term romantic relationship with Oreste Pucciani, future chairman of the UCLA French department, who was a key figure in bringing Jean-Paul Sartre to the attention of American educators. They met in 1953 and remained together until Gernreich’s death in 1985 at the age of 62.


a lime green and multi-color full-length dress with big flowers on a mannequin in a gallery space
Rudi Gernreich, Green and multi-color applique full-length dress, c. 1970, Wool and synthetic double knit jersey, Hamish Bowles Collection
a gallery space featuring mannequins dressed in pop art-inspired garments with bright colors and patterns framing Roy Lichtenstein's work

See one of Gernreich’s garments on view in Fashioning America: Grit to Glamour, open now through January 30, 2023.


Written by Stace Treat, head of interpretation.