THE RUDI GERNREICH BOOK
1964, brown and black wool-knit suit and stockings. (author's collection)
I told her I felt this was the time for freedom-in fashion as well as every other facet of life. When she asked if I were going to make it for the public I told her no, that it was just a statement.
'This is where you're making a mistake: she told me. 'If there's a picture of it, it's an actuality. You must make it.'
"When I returned to the hotel, I already had calls from Harmon telling me buyers were demanding to buy the suit. We agreed to go ahead with it. Eventually, every major store in the country either carried it or had ordered it and couldn't sell it because of below-the- bible-belt objections from store presidents.
"Melvin Dawley of Lord & Taylor was one of those presidents who wouldn't allow the suit to be delivered. I remember a boutique called Splendiferous immediately took over the shipment. Hess Brothers in Allentown, Pennsylvania, was picketed, and Milgrim's in Detroit had a bomb threat."
The topless became a hard-core news event unequaled in American fashion history.
New York Times, June 22, 1964: "The Soviet government newspaper Izvestia reported on the new bathing suit and added that American fashion was speculating on topless evening dresses. 'The American way of life is on the side of everything that gives the possibility of trampling on morals and the interests of society for the sake of ego. So the decay of the moneybag society continues.'"
Los Angeles Herald Examiner, July 14, 1964: "The suit has been legally approved to Sweden, Germany and Austria. It is banned in Holland, Denmark and Greece."
New York Times, July 2, 1964: "For a brief moment, the mayors of the Riviera had a chance to stand up and be counted as men who would fight to preserve a decent and normal way of life. Women were warned that even if they dropped the tops of their bikinis-all 3 inches-there would be legal repercussions. It was the Mayor of Saint-Tropez who endeared himself to the most indignant. He was reported to have said that if there were signs of trouble he would use helicopters to patrol the beaches and spot offenders."
Saturday Evening Post, October 31, 1964: "Such natural enemies at Izvestia, L'Osservatore Romano and the Carroll Avenue Baptist Mission of Dallas, invoking Scripture and Karl Marx, agreed that it was immoral and antisocial."
New York Herald Tribune, November 16, 1964: "Italy didn't react after the suit was banned by the Pope."
Of the three thousand women who bought the suits, at least two wore them in the public. Carol Doda, a San Francisco entertainer of 39- 26-36 proportions, wore hers while entertaining at the Condor Club. Playboy magazine chronicled her appearance in its April 1965 issue. Toni Lee Shelley, nineteen, was taken into custody by a Chicago policeman for wearing the topless bathing suit at the beach. She was booked on a charge of suspicion of improper attire for bathing. At her arraignment she asked for an all-male jury.
Moffitt describes the sensation caused by her posing in the topless bathing suit: "When Rudi told me he had agreed to create the suit for Look, I asked who he would getto model it. He said, 'You: Isaid, 'ho, ho, ho: Later, because I understood the point of overstating the case for unrestricted expression of freedom, I agreed to pose for the pictures my husband took, but I told Rudi there would be a few rules. Bill, Rudi, and Iagreed that Iwould never wear the suit in public-that this in itself would sentionalize the whole affair. I also refused to pose for another photographer.
Bill first took the photos of me to Life. They told him they couldn't print them because 'this is a family magazine, and naked breasts are allowed only if the woman is an aborigine: Because they'd goofed the story as a news event-and by that time it was really an event-they asked Rudi, Bill, and me if we'd help them present the story as an historical evolution of the breast in fashion history. So we reshot the photo especially for Life, and I covered my breasts with my arms at their insistence.
The photograph of me in that issue-hiding my breasts with my arms-is dirty. If you are wearing a fashion that does not have a top as part of its design and hold your arms over your bosom, you're going along with the whole prudish, teasey thing like a Playboy bunny.
The Women's Wear Daily picture, which I think is beautiful, really shook up Madison Avenue. If the breast stops being a sex symbol- nd it does the moment you uncover it-how could they tease any more in ads? How were they going to sell toothpaste?"
Claxton later took his photos of the topless to Paris Match. He recounts, "They said virtually the same thing as Life-that Paris Match was a family magazine and could not show bare breasts on the cover. I always found it strange that that week's cover photo of the magazine showed a family totally mutilated in a car accident."
The topless controversy still raged as late as 1985, after Gernreich's death, when the Los Angeles Fashion Group staged its Gernreich retrospective, "Looking Back at a Futurist." Moffitt said she would resign as the show's creative director if the topless was modeled on stage at the Wiltern Theatre. She told the Los Angeles limes (August 2, 1985), "Rudi did the suit as a social statement. It was an exaggeration that had to do with setting women free. It had nothing to do with display, and the minute someone wears it to show off her body, you've negated the entire principle of the thing. I modeled it for a photograph, which was eventually published around the world, because I believed in the social statement. Also, because the three of us-Rudi, Bill, and I-felt that the photograph presented the statement accurately. Iwas offered $17,000 in 1964 to let Playboy publish that photograph of me in the suit. I turned it down as unthinkable. And I don't want to exploit women any more now than I did in 1964. The statement hasn't changed. The suit still is about freedom and not display."