1960s Hemlines - Up, Up & Away - the Fashion Spot
 
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1960s Hemlines - Up, Up & Away
Source: time.com, published 1 December 1967 - this could just as easily have been published today. Just change a few of the names - the gist remains the same.

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"Those show-offs who wear dresses up to their bottoms know nothing about fashion," fumes Jo Hughes, the super-saleslady at Manhattan's Bergdorf Goodman who has made a career out of helping stylish women stay in style. Snaps West Coast Designer James Galanos: "All they've done is chop five inches off the hem and they call it new. To me it's a laugh." It is no laugh to Norman Norell, 67, dean of American designers. "Elegance is out," sighs the master of elegance. "It's a fascinating, frustrating time to be a designer."

What angers Hughes, amuses Galanos and frustrates Norell are the new youth-oriented, high-rise styles, executed in eye-popping colors and freewheeling fabrics, that have turned the fashion world topsy-turvy in the '60s. The uprising has come close to creating a multi-skirt-length culture, and it is being opposed as vehemently as it is being cheered. "I hope that adult women will stop trying to look like kids it's a disaster when they do and develop their own look," says Seventeen Fashion Director Rosemary McMurtry. Scolds Society Columnist Suzy Knickerbocker: "The next thing you know they'll be yanking little ones out of the fifth grade, freaking them up in the name of fashion, and throwing them on the magazine covers."

Youth in Command. The most visual, persistent and audacious element of the new fashions is the miniskirt. In the three years since it made its first real appearance in small, offbeat boutiques and far-out discotheques, it has surged onto the campuses, into offices, out on the avenue anywhere at all that youth defiantly chooses to show its colors. By general agreement, a true mini rises to just mid-thigh. But with dresses growing shorter by the season, whole new categories have had to be advanced. "Now," notes one San Francisco designer, "there is the micromini, the micro-micro, the 'Oh, My God' and the 'Hello, Officer.' "

In fact, the mini is only the symbol of a far-ranging change in fashion that has toppled the old dictators of style and brought into power a new group of designers, plugged in to the here-and-now tastes of youth bold, irreverent, geared high, full of jokes and independence. Fashion feeds on change, and what is In one moment is often Out the next. The flapper dresses of the 1920s, for instance, skimmed the top of the knee for only two years (1926-27) before hemlines began falling. Dior's New Look, which sent skirts plummeting in the post-World War II years, began in 1947; three years later, hemlines were on the rise. But there are also more durable upheavals based on fundamentally altered outlooks and attitudes; the present revolution, which has been a long time brewing, is one of them.

Like all revolutions, it began, as Coco Chanel acidly observes, "in the streets." Once, styles trickled down from a handful of wealthy and conservative women whose clothes were made to order by entrenched French designers. Being chic was the objective, but always in a dignified and ladylike way. Now youth is in command, and it is the college and young career girls who make the mode. What Actress Julie Christie wears has more real impact on fashion than all the clothes of the Ten Best-Dressed Women combined.

Brightest & Boldest. Ebullient and supremely self-confident, the new young stylesetters couldn't care less about looking like ladies. They demand to look smashing in a theatrical, sexy and aggressively individual manner. No longer are clothes meant to fit like a soft, beautifully made glove; instead, they are free and unbinding. No longer do colors blend in a bouquet-like ensemble; it is much more fun to make them clash, vibrate, gleam and sparkle. And if designers don't give them what they crave, youth invent it for themselves.

"Harper's Bazaar used to be able to say, 'This year you wear green,' or whatever," says its editor, Nancy White, "but not any longer." Vogue Editor Diana Vreeland agrees that what gives the new fashions their fresh look and vitality is youth: "This generation stepped out and away and did things their way." As a result, notes Vreeland, "no one is obliged to wear anything she doesn't want to, and one can go as far as she wants. She can wear absolutely anything that is wildly becoming."

Now that next spring's fashions have been previewed in Manhattan for department-store buyers across the nation, the trend is clear. Clothes will be more wildly becoming than ever. Designers who are tuned in on the new wave length have produced a crop of dresses that are not only the brightest, boldest and happiest in memory but also the shortest and most revealing (see color pages).

No-Bra Bra & See-Throughs. No designer these days reveals more than California's Rudi Gernreich, 45, the man who shocked the world in 1964 with his topless bathing suit. No stylesetter has capitalized with more flair on the current vogue for exposure; but even his critics grant that Rudi's topless was only an incident in his rapid rise to leadership as the most way-out, far-ahead designer in the U.S. When he was inducted into Fashion's Hall of Fame this fall the sixth U.S. designer to be so honored he was hailed by the selection committee as "one of the fabulous originals," the designer who has been so consistently a front runner that "like World War II's Kilroy, wherever one looks in fashion, it seems 'Gernreich was here.' "

Gernreich (which he pronounces to rhyme with earn quick) made his mark by being not only the first U.S. designer to raise skirts well above the knee but also the first with such trend-setting styles as colored stockings, now so overwhelmingly popular, which he showed as part of what he called "the total look," with dress, stockings and sometimes a hood all matching. Along the way, he has introduced vinyl clothes developed out of a material that looks completely "today" and a series of freeing designs aimed at giving back to the female body its natural look and curves, including his knit tank suits, his No-Bra bra, and sheer, see-through nylon blouses.

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Wicked Alternative. For last month's spring showings, Gernreich arrived togged out in one of his favorite zippered Pierre Cardin "cosmocorps" suits, looking every bit as futuristic as his fashions. Standing fully erect, his 5-ft. 6-in., 138-lb. figure poised with a lithe dancers grace, he told the buyers and press: "A woman today can be anything she wants to be a Gainsborough or a Reynolds or a Reynolds Wrap." Then came a preview of the provocative choices ahead. First was a series of simple knit dresses simple except for the clear vinyl bands that saucily bared the navel and the underslope of the bosom. Nor were the bathing suits that followed any letdown. Clear vinyl was at work again to make them the nudest since the topless.

Gernreich confronted the problem of the miniskirt head on. Tights may take care of modesty in the wintertime, believes Rudi, but for summer they are simply too hot. "Since skirts as such are really disappearing, they have to have a different look," he announced, and proceeded to prescribe either puffy bloomers or Siamese skirts with a security panel wrapped between the legs. For braver women, he offered a wicked alternative: a black bikini bottom to match the briefest tent dress ever.

Ostrich Skirts & Ruffled Bibs. It is a sign of the times that Gernreich's fondness for exposing the body raised no heckles. Just four years ago, when Gernreich won his first Coty Award, Norman Norell returned his Hall of Fame plaque because "it no longer has any meaning." Norell has since reconsidered, now says: "I take it all back on the basis of the last two years he's a great designer." But Norell finds that when he tries to match Gernreich's pace and turn out younger clothes, they come out "too well-made."

Puzzled by the direction that fashion is taking, Norell adds: "I'd appreciate a few hints."

Most of the New Guard of Seventh Avenue designers, however, swing right along with Rudi. "I have never enjoyed designing more," exclaims Chester Weinberg, 37, who has been on his own for barely a year and a half long enough to pick up the patronage of such Manhattan pacesetters as Best-Dressed Amanda Burden, Pop Art Promoter Ethel Scull and Anne Ford Uzielli. Says Weinberg: "This youth movement is just right for me." Although he experimented with mid-calf midis for his evening clothes, for day-time he kept his dresses short, made them pretty, with lots of ruffles and see-through organza blouses. Declares Weinberg: "If I could have, I would have stuck lilies of the valley under the belt of every dress."

"I don't care about my customers as long as I amuse myself," says Geoffrey Beene, 40, who has just designed the wedding gown for Lynda Bird Johnson. Beene's bag now is packed with gaily colored evening dresses, with striped T-shirt tops and extravagant ostrich-feather skirts. Jacques Tiffeau, 40, showed the shortest skirts of all (eight inches above the knee) but softened the look by draping bosoms Grecian-style for evening and by using flowing flowered silks for daytime. Oscar de La Renta, 34, best known for his evening gowns, went all out for romance with a group of dresses in white organza and lace petals, including one long-sleeved short culotte that is to be worn with rhinestone-embroidered tights.

Gauging how high the market will go is tricky business. "Last year," admits Bill Blass, 45, "I said the hell with the old customers, and I designed the most extreme collection of my career." Some of the old customers said the same to Blass. "I had to get off the youth kick," he explains. For next year, Blass is back with the baby-doll look, shown with lots of lace and ruffled bibs in a series of fetching high-necked dresses three inches above the knee.

Endless Penelope. Fashions are equally switched on at the boutiques, where the prices are low, the taped rock music is loud, and the amateur salesgirls just can't resist breaking into a frug while waiting on customers. Boutiques are now being shopped by everybody, from teen-agers and secretaries to Jackie Kennedy. She picked up half a dozen bush shirts for her recent trip to Angkor Wat at Manhattan's Paraphernalia. The most successful of them all, it has 34 branches across the country and a brilliant new designer named Betsey Johnson, 25, who only three years ago was an unknown peddling homemade sweaters to her associates at Mademoiselle. "I built my success on Dr. Speck's failure," says Paul Young, Paraphernalia's 38-year-old president. "He told parents that the kids had to make it on their own, and consequently the kids got neglected and turned to their own peer group."

Boutiques are proliferating across the U.S. and abroad as well. In Paris, Pierre Cardin, Yves St. Laurent and André Courrèges have all opened their own to carry their new ready-to-wear designs. The Beatles are backing one called Apple that will open soon in London. To get in on the act, big U.S. department stores are setting up their own boutique sections.

To keep old skirts up to the level of what is latest in the boutiques, girls are playing an endless game of Penelope ripping out stitches, shortening dresses that only last winter looked too daringly high. Wheaton College Senior Cess Cathcart put one dress through so many metamorphoses that she was left with "something I can wear as a belt if I ever get desperate."

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Rosy Badge of Courage. The higher the hems go, the better it gets for girl watchers, who are having the time of their lives. Boston Adman John Lamb recalls with relish the time he walked into a wall while watching a short-skirted secretary bend over to rummage through the bottom drawer of the file cabinet. Miami Model Mary Stewart knows all too well that the new fashions are registering when her husband, who works at Miami International Airport, interrupts his telephone conversation with her to whistle and exclaim: "Wow, there goes a real short one! You wouldn't believe it!"

Not all men find short skirts that attractive. Former Harvard Football Hero Bobby Leo, who now plays for the Boston Patriots, actually feels uncomfortable around them. "The other day I was walking behind a girl with a mini-skirt on, and I was embarrassed for six blocks," says Leo. Many husbands admit to liking them but not on their own wives. Still, most young men confess themselves riveted by the exposure. "Sure it's a distraction," says University of Miami Campus Editor Larry Mans, "but I can't think of a nicer one, and most of the professors feel the same way." As for the mini wearers themselves, most would rather freeze than quit. Helped along with warm panty hose and boots, they are accepting rosy kneecaps for this winter as today's badge of courage. "It's a mark of the new freedom," says University of Chicago's Dr. Martin Marty of the shorter styles. "Girls on the New Left wear them. Young Republican women wear them. Matrons wear them. If they're rebelling, they're in the majority already, so they've won the battle."

From Sack to Mod. The first shot was fired ironically by Balenciaga, the haughtiest couturier of them all way back in 1951, when he began loosening the waist with the semifitted free-form dress. Balenciaga followed up with the still looser tunic in 1955, eliminated the waist altogether with the "sack" in 1957. Once dresses began falling loosely from the shoulders, without a pinched-in waist, hemlines were free to rise without destroying the proportion of the line.

As early as 1958, London's Mary Quant was putting skirts above the knee, and by 1964, she and her fellow mod designers had made it fashionable to look like a short-skirted working girl. Temporarily losing her nerve, she lengthened skirts one year, but nobody paid the slightest attention. Says Quant: "The birds went on putting them up in spite of me." Also in 1964, Courrèges' space-age styles stamped mini lengths with the respectability of the Paris couture. For the short skirt, the transatlantic crossing to the U.S. was an instant ban voyage. In the same year, Gernreich showed his dresses three inches above the knee, and escalation was under way.

Hipster & a Lady. The look that resulted is not for every woman, as Gernreich is the first to admit. Further, he points out: "Nobody is supposed to lift off the cover of Vogue and put it on." Designers deliberately exaggerate a point in order to emphasize it. In fact, before the new short dresses are shipped out of New York, their hems will automatically be lowered one, two or even three inches, depending on which region they are being sent to, with the East and West Coasts getting the highest, the Midwest and South the lower ones.

Dress levels also depend on the individual's sense of propriety. Manhattan Socialite Marylou Whitney, 41, would not be caught dead in anything resembling a mini. She shops only at expensive stores and, to please her husband Sonny, who she says wants her to look "romantic," makes sure her skirts ride no higher than one inch above her knees. But for another Manhattan socialite, Wendy Vanderbilt, single and 26 years old, the thigh's the limit. Wendy seldom buys designers' clothes ("They are too expensive"), shops almost exclusively at boutiques, and thinks "it's great to buy a $30 dress."
Girls who wear Gernreich's clothes prize them above all because they leave the body free to move. "They follow the figure, and I like that feeling," says Actress Carol Channing, who started wearing them seven years ago to go with her new Vidal Sassoon haircut. Actress Eva Marie Saint finds "his clothes are like wearing nothing, like wearing tissue paper."

Cosmopolitan Editor Helen Gurley Brown (Sex and the Single Girl) likes Rudi's clothes because they are "sexy, foxy, amusing, just right." Presidential Assistant Betty Furness, 51 and a grandmother, proudly wore a Gernreich when she testified before Congress. China Machado, former model turned Harper's Bazaar fashion editor, likes playing make-believe with hers, says: "Rudi has made woman a hipster and a lady at the same time." Shirlee Fonda, young wife of Actor Henry Fonda, wears a Gernreich for evening entertaining, and Actress Barbara Feldon (Agent 99 on TV's Get Smart!) insists that "there's no such thing as throwing a Gernreich away." When one of hers wears out, she sets it aside to make a pillow cover out of it.

Instant Convert. Gernreich traces his own introduction to fashion all the way back to the age of two, when he accompanied his middle-class Austrian Jewish parents on an Italian vacation. "I trailed around after a lady who was obviously of ill repute," he remembers. "I say 'obviously' because she was very heavily made up, which was unheard of in those days, and she was very colorfully dressed. Her attire was outrageous, and I was terribly attracted to her. I kept following her, and she couldn't get rid of me." Back home in Vienna, his parents took him to a clothing store for a new coat. The one that caught his eye was maroon and grey with zebra trim. His parents balked, "but I carried on and made a scene until they bought it for me, and I paraded around in it very proudly."

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His father, a hosiery executive, died when Rudi was eight. He detested school because of its "rigid militaristic atmosphere." His sanctuary was the dress shop run by one of his aunts. He became so enthralled with the world of dress design that plans were made to send him to Paris to become an apprentice in a major couture house. But Hitler's armies were threatening Europe, and instead of going to Paris, Rudi's mother, who died two years ago, fled with her only child to America just before the Anschluss in 1938. Gernreich was 16.

After settling in Los Angeles, where his mother had friends, he divided his days between studying art at Los Angeles City College and working as an office boy for $8 per week, which, together with the small sums his mother earned by baking pastries at home, enabled them to eke out a living. Then one night he happened in on a performance of Martha Graham's modern-dance company. "It had such a tremendous impact on me that it changed my life," he says. An instant convert, he dropped art, began studying with Lester Horton ("a kind of West Coast Martha Graham"), and danced his way through the 1940s as a member of Horton's company.

Crazy Sketches. By his own confession, Gernreich was never a great dancer. But being with the company gave him the chance to design costumes, the first real clothes that he had ever created. He also picked up a job designing fabrics. To dramatize them, he had them photographed draped around live models. People who saw the ads wrote to suggest that Gernreich try designing clothes, and so in 1949 he produced his first "experimental collection." A number of Los Angeles stores, including I. Magnin, wanted to order them, but, rues Rudi, "I had no way of producing them, I had no knowledge about manufacturing."

Gernreich began learning the hard way, working for dress designers on the West Coast and in Manhattan. "I was expected to turn out collections based on Dior and Fath," he recalls, "but I was ready to burst out with new ideas." His chance to do so came in 1952, when he teamed up with Walter Bass, a fellow Viennese emigrant and the son of a tailor to royalty. Bass at the time was turning out classic women's suits-tight-fitting, full of darts, and with broad padded shoulders-in a small loft in Beverly Hills. "Rudi was doing these crazy sketches, but nobody knew what to do with them," says Bass. But with Gernreich designing and Bass handling the business end, the pair produced a line of loose-cut, tightly belted dresses in ordinary ginghams and rayon tweeds. The operation was tiny, but, says Rudi, "for the first time, I could do what I wanted to do." Says Bass: "It was really a wild line, like a car with wings. Sometimes I thought I was committing suicide."

Enter Jack Hanson, who had just opened Jax in Beverly Hills (the boutique chain has since grown to eight stores). "We had far-out things of our own," says Hanson, "so we had a ready-made clientele for Rudi's stuff, and we pushed him." The three-way association worked profitably for seven years. In 1959, Gernreich and Bass separated. Four years later, with Bonwit Teller anxious to carry Gernreich's clothes and Hanson determined to have him exclusively or not at all, they too broke. "Rudi is a supreme egotist," says Bass, who now runs gas stations. Echoes Hanson: "He's a publicity hound."

Nude Ritual. On his own, Gernreich has prospered. The medium-high-priced ($90 to $500) clothes that he puts out under his own label gross close to $1,000,000 a year. The lower-priced ($40 to $125) knitwear that he creates for Harmon grosses another $2,000,000. Just this year, he also contracted to design silk signature scarves for Glentex and a collection of knee socks, stockings and panty hose for the McCallum Boutique.

For all his flamboyance and wit as a designer, and as a raconteur among friends, Gernreich is so shy and nervous in public that he sometimes breaks out in a rash, incessantly smokes black Sherman's Cigarettellos. He is not married, but unlike many designers who squire their customers to public events, he shuns big parties and nightclubs. Instead, he prefers entertaining small groups in his modern split-level Hollywood Hills house, which he has decorated in austere white with leather-tile floors and classic Mies van der Rohe and Charles Eames furniture.

Scarcely a day goes by at his house without Gernreich's taking a ritual sun-bath and a swim in the nude in his private pool, where he also tests out new swimsuit fabrics. As a former dancer and an outdoors-loving Californian, he believes wholeheartedly in the natural body. He has carried his beliefs into practice. Today, Editor of French Vogue Françoise de Langlade de La Renta claims: "No one has freed the body like Rudi Gernreich, and I doubt that anyone so overflows with ideas." One of his most liberating designs was a simple knit tank suit with no inner construction. It came at a time when women were bathing in suits so full of stays and gussets that they practically stood up by themselves. "Just a revival of swim suits that were worn in the 1920s," he says today, but his 1954 suit, and those that came later have made Gernreich the most famous bathing-suit designer in the field.

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The final part.

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The Freedom Women Want. The topless, though it came ten years later, was really but a step away from the tank suit. It started when a Women's Wear Daily reporter asked Gernreich about bathing-suit trends, and he blithely predicted that in five years U.S. women would be removing their bras to sunbathe, just as he had seen French women doing on the Riviera for years. He was promptly deluged with callers asking if he really meant it. Recalls Gernreich: "The more I was asked, the more emphatically I said yes." Italian Designer Emilio Pucci was also predicting toplessness and more. Suggested Pucci: "Perhaps they may take to applying lipstick on their nipples as women did in ancient Egypt." To get the drop on him, Gernreich whipped up a prototype topless for Look. To his considerable surprise, half a dozen stores asked to carry them. He put the suit into production, and 3,000 were eventually sold.

The reaction to the topless was explosive. Irate women picketed the stores brandishing signs reading AS MOTHERS WE PROTEST TOPLESS SWIM SUITS and WHAT NEXT? WE REBEL. Women treated Gernreich as a pariah, and men sidled up to tell him the latest dirty topless joke. Gernreich was chagrined. Says he: "It was a difficult period for me to weather."

But fashion professionals understood. Baroness Fiona Thyssen, former European model and sometime boutique owner, sees the topless as "a one-man rebellion against the couturiers' total disregard for the bosom." "He was trying to take away the prurience, the whole perverse side of sex," insists Peggy Moffitt, Gernreich's favorite model, who posed in the topless for the pictures taken by her photographer-husband Bill Claxton. "Rudi was using the bosom as a shape, not as two breasts spilling out of the body," says Peggy. "The topless was an expression of the freedom that every women wants."
Skirts Are Finished. Moffitt and Gernreich have an extraordinary rapport. Most designers tell their models exactly how to present each dress, often train them for days before a showing. Rudi simply lets Peggy try on a dress, frequently at the last minute, and work out her own approach to modeling it. Says Moffitt: "It happens only once in your life, if at all, that you meet a person who is your missing half. It's telepathy, or ESP any way you want to put it."

Whether by the pool or at his office-showroom on Santa Monica Boulevard, Gernreich finds ideas constantly going through his head, jots them down in sketch form, and files them away. What he sees young people wearing, as he drives around Los Angeles in his white Jaguar 3.8 sedan or strolls Manhattan streets, is a major source of inspiration. "The young," he says, "are very inventive about what they want to wear, how they wear it, and what they want to say with it. I get a great many of my ideas from watching them." When time for a new collection nears, he weeds through the sketches that have accumulated to find the two or three key ideas that he will develop as themes with variations.

With his spring collection now done, Gernreich is looking ahead to the next. He sees fashion as a great, marvelous and on-going game: "Style today is a kind of flaunting of one's personality. The important thing is to get a total feeling for what's new and then make it part of yourself." As fashion grows steadily freer and less inhibited, he hopes that whole costumes will become inexpensive enough to be worn briefly, then thrown away on a whim. Nudity? "I think a great deal more of it is going to be around yes, including the topless." Skirts, he believes, are finished and will soon be replaced by tunics combined with tights into two-piece garments. But most of all what Gernreich insists upon is that the dress should never again dominate the woman. "Clothes are just not that important," says he. "They're not status symbols any longer. They're for fun."

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