The SCAD Museum of Art presents "The Total Look: The Creative Collaboration between Rudi Gernreich, Peggy Moffitt, and William Claxton." This multimedia exhibition celebrates the unique and dynamic collaboration between the great fashion designer Rudi Gernreich, his model and muse Peggy Moffitt, and Moffitt’s late husband, photographer William Claxton, who created the distinctive images of Moffitt activating Gernreich’s designs. The exhibition features selected looks from Moffitt’s collection, with films and photographs by Claxton of Moffitt modeling the clothes. Gernreich, Moffitt and Claxton were central figures in the Los Angeles art community in the 1960s and ‘70s, and were known for their friendships and collaborations with other artists. Gernreich’s work incorporates many of the early innovations of pop, minimal and performance art, and the introduction of his famous topless swimsuit in 1964 became one of the first instances of art and design being transformed into a worldwide media event.
The exhibition is free with SCAD Museum of Art admission.
Rudi Gernreich (b. 1922, Vienna, Austria; d. 1985, Los Angeles) arrived in Los Angeles as a refugee in 1938 at the age of 16, six months after the Anschluss. His first job in the United States was as an assistant at a mortuary. Commenting on this experience, Gernreich recalled that he "grew up overnight." "There I was with all those dead bodies," he said. "Eventually I got used to the corpses. But I do smile sometimes when people tell me my clothes are so body-conscious, I must have studied anatomy. You bet I studied anatomy!"
Gernreich studied art at Los Angeles City College, worked in the publicity department at RKO Studios, and once replaced a friend as a sketch artist for costume designer Edith Head. After watching a performance by Martha Graham's modern dance company, he abandoned art to study with the choreographer Lester Horton, whom Gernreich described as "a kind of West Coast Martha Graham." As Marylou Luther wrote in the introduction to Peggy Moffitt's and William Claxton's book on Gernreich, "he became less interested in the static details of clothes and more concerned with how they looked in motion."
Gernreich remained engaged with the dance community and later designed costumes for Bella Lewitzky, one of his fellow dancers in the Horton company, but by the late 1940s, he had returned to fashion design. Drawing on his experience with dance, Gernreich predicted that "the aesthetics of fashion are going to involve the body itself. We will train the body to grow beautifully rather than cover it to produce beauty."
After a short period on Seventh Avenue, where he became disappointed by the way the fashion business looked to Paris rather than America for inspiration, he returned to Los Angeles. Working for sportswear and swimwear manufacturers like Walter Bass and Westwood Knitting Mills, Gernreich started to receive recognition and awards for innovations such as the first knitted tube dress and the first unconstructed swimsuit, but he was frustrated by the required commercial compromises. Gernreich solidified his stature as one of the pre-eminent independent American designers when he started his own company in 1960.
Peggy Moffitt (b. 1937, Los Angeles) was Rudi Gernreich's favorite model and muse. Her profound dialogue with Gernreich enabled her to embody his design aesthetic, not just to model it but to perform it. Her unique modern look and her innovations in the art of modeling continue to inspire a younger generation and have made her a fashion icon.
William Claxton (b. 1927, Pasadena, California; d. 2008, Los Angeles), America's pre-eminent jazz photographer, who is also known for his celebrity/personality photographs and album cover designs, was married to Moffitt. He began photographing Rudi Gernreich's work in 1957 and documented every single collection from 1962. Claxton's film, Basic Black: William Claxton w/ Peggy Moffitt (1967), which will be featured in the exhibition, is considered the forerunner of fashion film.