After one too many seasons of Project Runway, none of us should be surprised that clothing is design. Whether a dress or coat is good or bad design is usually thought to be determined by the marketplace -- but any one who loves the art of imagining and making things knows that's not necessarily so.
Rudi Gernreich spent most of his productive life entirely aware that clothes were ideas in material form. His innovations weren't of the "masterpiece," perfect-object type: instead, they embraced the new concept of lifestyle and -- in his soft bathing suits, body clothes and tube dresses, in his unisex "do it yourself" looks and signature, playful wit -- celebrated the removal of restriction and corseting conformity.
How did Gernreich understand that a piece of clothing could somehow embody a larger sense of freedom and liberation? I'd like to suggest that it had something to do with his being what we now call gay.Of course it's dangerous to make such generalizations, and we know that creativity comes from many places in one's life. That Gernreich was a dancer must have informed his "leotard" vision of how a dressed body should float with naked ease in and around every situation.
Around 60 years ago here in Los Angeles, Gernreich, with his lover Harry Hay and others, formed the Mattachine Society, probably the first gay rights group in the country. Some later criticized the designer for not coming out after taking those amazingly brave early steps, but most of us now could barely imagine how difficult and dangerous it was to do so: you could lose your job, your friends and family, and even your life.
This is not the time for a history lecture: we honor the designer best by kicking up our heels -- by getting rid of them completely. So don your mental monokini, dust off that lavender thong. The sparkling designer Rudi Gernreich is one of my heroes, one of my gay heroes, because at a time when so many were forced to keep quiet, his clothing flung open the closet door and, with a big, loud bang, came out.