April 21: Rudy Gernreich and the Mattachine Society

Rudy Gernreich, dancer and fashion designer who was the co-founder with his lover Harry Hay of the Mattachine Society, died on this date in 1985. Gernreich, a teen refugee from Nazism in Austria, was best known for his monokini, the first topless bathing suit — meant for both men and women — and his advocacy of unisex clothing, which he expressed by dressing women and men in identical clothing and completely shaving their heads and bodies. He was also noted for the use of vinyl and plastic in clothes. The Mattachine Society, founded in 1950, was the first gay organization in post-war America. Harry Hay, a Communist who organized the Society into secret cells, met Gernreich several months before the organization was launched. Gernreich became a key financial supporter but did not lend his name to the Society, instead going by the initial “R.” A split within the Society in 1952 produced a new organization, ONE, which admitted women. Both ONE and Mattachine provided key help to the Daughters of Bilitis, The Ladder, in 1956.

“Gernreich’s first job was washing cadavers for autopsy. ‘I grew up overnight,’ he remembered . . . ‘I do smile sometimes when people tell me my clothes are so body-conscious I must have studied anatomy. You bet I studied anatomy.’” —Christopher Petkanis, New York Times

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