PRINT September 2000


Rudi Gernreich

THE IRRESISTIBLE CONCEIT of Austin Powers is nostalgia for futurism. That is the endemic condition of the baby boomer. We are disappointed by the present's relationship to our past's future. The future was so wide open. We were poised to make science fiction fact. Born on the New Frontier, we now find ourselves ghettoized by our collective disappointments. We are not the Jetsons and never will be. The year 2001 has little chance of living up to the film. And though we landed on the moon thirty-two years ago—and still lose a robot on Mars occasionally—we are spacemen marooned on earth.

The future still looms large, but it is no longer wondrous and futuristic. Today the future, as constructed by the various gospels of Star Trek, Star Wars, and their descendants, is extremely retro. The starship is a gussied-up, doodad-clad submarine or aircraft carrier. The United Federation of Planets is still fighting World War II. The limitless future as we dreamed it has evaporated into the Gothic gloom of The Matrix, and the triumphal vision of übertechnology and its brave new culture long ago yielded to the glamorous entropy of Blade Runner.

In other words, the future doesn't swing, baby. The clutter of millennia has not been swept away by science and design. We live in a state of rotating retro samples. The '70s may be succeeded by the '60s—or the '80s—but the sweeping leap into the new has failed. We have lived through the sexual counterrevolution, the design counterrevolution, and waves of Luddite technoparanoia. To find a decent future we have to go back to our hydroponic roots.

To find an inspiring prophet we hit the archives: Loewy, Neutra, Nelson, and Fuller. For forward psychosexual fantasy we find ourselves screening Barbarella, Blow Up, The Tenth Victim, Our Man Flint. If extraterrestrials stumbled across the ruins of today, how would they explain fashion's transition from Courrèges, Ungaro, Pucci, and Gernreich to Versace, Lauren, and Hilfiger? Sifting through the wreckage, they'd suspect foul play.

The aliens would no doubt find in Rudi Gernreich—who is the subject of a retrospective opening in October at the Künstlerhaus Graz, Austria (see Withers, p. 77)—the consummation of innovative, speculative fashion. Did Gernreich threaten the social order so dramatically that his fashions were politically suppressed? Up to Gernreich, fashion was by definition progressive and modernist. But he stands as the last of the great futurists.

This is not to say that there are no designers concerned with complex aesthetic and cultural issues. We still have Comme des Garçons , Issey Miyake, and the Belgians, but their bold deconstructions and appropriations are postmodern ideas that do not deliver the future but critique the present.

Gernreich designed a future. He worked with a futurist palette of colors. He took direct inspiration from technological developments in fabric manufacture. He liberated the body, with clothing that revealed it rather than concealed it. He naturalized sexuality by literally breaking down the barriers in clothing, with tube dresses and deconstructed bathing suits and the “no-bra bra.” He challenged the traditional assignment of roles, creating androgynous designs for an androgynous workplace. And he made fashion into revolution by any means necessary—see the topless bathing suit. He foresaw the casual workplace. He envisioned social classes defined by taste and ideas rather than by an elitist pecking order. And, more than any other designer, he brought a Pop art sensibility to fashion. He swung, baby!

Today we see renewed cross-pollination between the worlds of art and fashion: a quest for respect on the part of fashion and power on the part of art. But in Gernreich's pop world, art and fashion were always inseparable elements of the greater art of living.

In the old days, when the future was futuristic, when kids dreamed of commuting by jet pack, when everyone was soon to be beautiful, rich, and blessed with fantastic leisure opportunities. when the documentary always concluded with the line “and the dream became a reality,” Gernreich realized the dream—with eyes wide open.

The Rudi Gernreich retrospective “Fashion Will Go Out of Fashion” will be on view at the Künstlerhaus Graz, Austria, Oct. 7–Nov. 26.

Glenn O'Brien is a writer who lives in New York.