Fashion: Rudi girl

The look that shocked the Sixties - panda-eyed Peggy Moffitt in Rudi Gernreich's topless swimsuit - is making a comeback. Tamsin Blanchard meets the model who bared all for `freedom'
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I first spot Peggy Moffitt in Milan, just before the Gucci show. Waiters are doing the rounds with champagne, weaving in and out of slick- haired, shiny-lipped fashion people in their chic layers of grey and black. Suddenly, through a tray of glasses, in the glow of sterile ultra-violet light, I catch a glimpse of something weird ... something not quite right. What is that? I strain to see. And there she is: a black helmet of hair sitting on top of that alabaster white face and those black panda eyes. She is dressed in blocks of bright colours. I mean really bright, like a Mondrian painting. The air around her positively vibrates. People are whispering: "Is that Peggy Moffitt?" "It can't be - she looks exactly the same!" Miss Moffitt disappears into the crowd and I am left staring at the fine fizz of champagne bubbles.

The second time I see Peggy is at the opening of an exhibition in Milan in homage to the West Coast American designer, Rudi Gernreich. This time she really is the centre of attention, dressed once again in the bright geometric clothes of the designer who was her best friend and artistic soulmate. Peggy Moffitt and Rudi were responsible for one of the defining images of the Sixties, the black and white photograph of the topless swimsuit: he was the designer, she was the model. And, by neat symmetry, Peggy's husband, William Claxton, took the photograph.

Peggy was Rudi Gernreich's muse as well as model. If they had been working today, she would have been called his

creative director. "We always said if he had been a model, he would have been me, and if I had been a designer, I would have been him," Peggy tells me when we finally meet back at the gallery later in the week. She is clearly delighted that her old friend's work is once more the talking point of Milan Fashion Week, as much a must-see show as the collections of Prada or Gucci. It is, after all, at the gallery owned by Carla Sozzani, sister of Franca, the editor of Italian Vogue, and one of Milan's most influential arbiters of taste.

Among a roomful of striking images of Peggy in Rudi's graphic, sharp designs, the swimsuit image stands out. He created the outfit in 1964, and he had to coax Peggy into modelling it for him. After two months, she finally gave in. "I agreed to do it only when I finally believed that Rudi wasn't exploiting me, that there really was a message and that message was `freedom'." She speaks in one of those old-time English-American accents that recall Bette Davis and Forties Hollywood movies. She has a boyish frame and the flamboyance of an actress, batting her heavily lashed lids at a TV crew who follow the two of us round the exhibition. "I think that image has had a huge impact," she says, "not just on fashion. Churches went crazy; laws were changed." Gernreich sold 3,000 of the topless swimsuits - originally meant to be more conceptual than commercial - but it is the picture of Peggy which has become an icon of its time, as a symbol of liberation and feminism. "It became the most shocking thing in the world," says Peggy.

"I see that picture everywhere - I almost don't think it's me any more," she says. The photo shoot was far from glamorous, and only one picture from the session was ever published. "It was shot by Bill in our living room. I'm standing on a bath mat with a sponge and a bowl of water." When, that same year, Penthouse offered Peggy $17,000 (more than her year's salary) to publish the picture, she refused. It was not about titillation.

The topless swimsuit made history. It also made Gernreich's name. When Peggy Moffitt first became aware of Rudi Gernreich, she was a part-time shop assistant in an LA boutique called Jax. Just 16, she was attending an exclusive girls' school. "I didn't sell many clothes, although I bought a lot," she laughs. "There were all these terrific clothes, and among them were Rudi Gernreich's. I thought he was the most genius designer in the world. And I also thought he must be the most famous in the world. It took me years to find out that he wasn't bigger than Christian Dior."

Gernreich was born in Vienna in 1922, the son of a hosiery manufacturer, and moved to California in 1938. He became a modern dancer and costume designer for the Lester Horton Dance Troupe, where he learnt about physical movement and discovered the foundation of his later work as a fashion designer, the leotard.

Gernreich died in 1985, at the age of 62, but left behind him a rich legacy of work - all very futuristic and space- age - that has quietly influenced designers both during his lifetime and since. He revolutionised the way women's clothes are constructed. As well as the topless swimsuit, Gernreich designed the "no-bra bra", freeing women from the upholstered contraptions of the Fifties and allowing them a more natural shape. The new bra's influence was far-reaching: "I bet you there isn't one women in the world who doesn't own a garment that doesn't have a bust dart in it, something that just lets you be a woman without having your breasts held and hauled up under your nose," Peggy says.

After leaving school, Peggy had studied acting at the Neighbourhood Playhouse in New York, then returned to LA and become "quite turned off by the whole scene". It was not long, however, before she was lured by fashion. "I didn't really like acting that much. But I understood it. In the interim, people had said, you ought to be a model. I started looking at fashion magazines and being really turned on."

The relationships that were to make Peggy famous started when she met a young photographer, sent to shoot her actor-boyfriend Tom for a magazine called Eve. "A green Jaguar pulled up outside Tom's house and the most amazing man I ever saw in my life stepped out of it. He was enormously tall and super skinny." The man turned out to be William Claxton, the jazz photographer whose work Peggy knew and admired. The three spent the next 16 hours together, going from coffee house to lunch to the beach and dinner. There was an instant rapport between Peggy and Bill (as she called him) and it was only months before he proposed.

It was at their wedding, hosted by New York society hostess Mrs Winthrop Rockefeller, that Rudi first appeared on the scene, one of the party-circuit guests. Peggy had met Rockefeller when she was modelling Gustave Tassell dresses, and was looking for somewhere to get married in a hurry. At the wedding, Bill, Peggy and Rudi immediately hit it off, and from then on, the three were inseparable: Rudi and Peggy experimenting with clothes and make-up, while Bill photographed the fun and frolics. "Peggy wore a white satin dress and white satin hat," recalls Bill of the wedding. He is at the Milan exhibition with Peggy, and he still cuts a dash: tall, with a cloud of white hair, he and Peggy obviously have the perfect relationship. They talk fondly about each other in a way that only a couple can who have been married for almost 40 years and enjoyed almost every minute of it.

When she met Bill in 1959, Peggy was already the epitome of a beatnik girl - black hair, white face and heavy kohl eyes. But it was her fascination with theatrical make-up that was to become her trademark. While other models were looking pale and interesting, Peggy Moffitt was looking pale and downright scary.

The distinctive Rudi/Peggy look evolved as the Sixties progressed. "Rudi and I turned each other on. He designed, I modelled, and we fed each other. We were completely receptive to each other." Peggy stuck fabric tears to her face and Rudi picked up on it and made a bathing suit covered with tear-shaped patches. Or he designed a Pierrot-inspired collection and she painted her face like a clown to match. When he made a black skullcap with feathers, she says, "I wanted to look like death. I bleached my eyebrows to make myself look more skull-like."

Sometimes the two were so in tune that they would discover they had the same ideas even when on opposite sides of America. Without knowing he was designing an Asian collection, Peggy came up with Kabuki-like mask make-up. The two just gelled. "He was providing me with roles to play," she says. "The singer is nowhere without the song. We became one entity." According to Peggy, Bill sometimes felt left out. "But Bill was part of it all as well. We had our own closeness and occasionally, Rudi would feel left out because I understood about photography and what made a great picture. Bill was fabulously patient and felt he was recording something important. He was a part of the threesome."

At the time, Gernreich and Peggy were seen as very extreme. They still are. Looking at the clothes suspended from the ceiling in the Milan show, there are many elements that look absolutely right for now. A pair of shoes in a glass case are white and red and modernist. Suddenly, it becomes clear where the inspiration for the autumn/winter '98 shoe collection for Prada comes from; a 1975 white evening dress suspended from a silver neck-piece is reminiscent of last year's sexy Gucci eveningwear. "I thought the Gucci dresses were lovely but I could certainly see the great grandmother of them," says Peggy.

When The Rudi Gernreich Book by Peggy and William was published by Rizzoli in 1991, it went straight into the reference collections - and the consciousness - of many designers. "I often think Rudi was the Orson Welles of the loom," says Peggy. "He was the bad boy and I think a lot of people felt threatened by us." As is often the way, it is the extremes that have great influence. "His influence has been going on for a long time, not just this season. I think at first he frightened people."

Peggy, of course, has a huge collection of Gernreich's clothes. Her appearance in Milan is not just a performance piece. She really does dress like that and wear her hair and make-up like that in everyday life. You can imagine her doing the housework in the Beverly Hills home she shares with Bill, wearing one of Rudi's red Perspex visors, or in a plastic dress - to keep off the dust. "Today I'm wearing ... now let's see ... '67 or '68 and I don't look retro or feel any nostalgia at all. I feel I'm wearing something that is comfortable and modern and witty."

Indeed, she does not look like she is lost in a time warp. The clothes are just part of her. "They don't age because they're so graphic. After 35 years, it's possible the sleeve may fall out of a dress, but that's the fabric. It's not Rudi's fault. There's a lot I don't wear because I weigh more than I did then." She is theatrical, and she causes a stir wherever she goes. She laughs a lot. But that's just Peggy. Her sense of fun is reflected in her sense of dress. "They're not jokey clothes. They're witty clothes," she insists.

After Bill, she says, she "worked with every schlock photographer on the face of the earth before being teamed with anybody that was pretty good". When she was photographed by Richard Avedon, modelling Rudi Gernreich's famous no-bra bra, it was a fantasy come true. "My teenage dream was to have a swimming pool and to work with Avedon every day." Although she lives in Beverly Hills, she does not have a swimming pool, and she worked with Avedon just once. She gave up modelling when she moved back to LA from New York in 1973 for the birth of her son, Christopher. Now 25, he is determined not to follow in the footsteps of either mother or father and has set his sights on going into business management. Peggy, meanwhile, works in partnership with her husband - whose jazz portraits are still in demand - editing his pictures, helping him with his books, and "styling the odd 80-year- old jazz musician".

About 18 months ago, Peggy registered the Rudi Gernreich name. She became aware of renewed interest and was being called to give information about the designer by people she knew nothing about. The thought that anybody could go and market him with a T-shirt, a range of hosiery or a collection of swimwear filled her with horror. "I did it to protect his name. That was the real motive," she says.

Now, she would like to reproduce some of the old designs which she believes have stood the test of time. She wants to revive the Rudi Gernreich label and is in search of a backer. Her son could be just the man to manage the business - she's already thought of that. And she and Bill are still in fine form as a photographer and model team. All she needs now is "Mr Moneybags". Well, a Rockefeller came to her rescue once before when she needed a wedding venue. Hopefully she won't have to wait too long Previous page, the iconic 1964 topless swimming costume. Right, Peggy and Rudi in 1964 and, facing page, Peggy today with her husband Bill Left from top, a 1966 paper and vinyl design from the film Basic Black, a 1968 wool and vinyl dress as featured in Time. Below, the `Goya Lady' black check chiffon dress, used in the poster for Basic Black