Collaboration across disciplines has always been an important aspect of artistic production, and it seems that collaborations have lately taken center stage in Atlanta. Dance company gloATL collaborated with filmmaker Micah Stansell in the recent performance “the search for the exceptional,” visual artist Gyun Hur collaborated with contemporary glassmakers at the High’s Hot Glass Roadshow, and Jason Kofke and Chris Chambers collaborated on squeezing a car into Beep Beep Gallery. If there are any lessons about collaboration one could glean from the exhibition The Total Look, originally at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art’s Pacific Design Center earlier this year and now on view at the SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah, it’s not just that such interdisciplinary collaborations can be enormously productive, but that they can work for the long haul, too.
The exhibit focuses on the long-term collaboration between designer Rudi Gernreich, model Peggy Moffitt, and photographer William Claxton, featuring looks from Moffitt’s own collection of the late designer’s creations, with Claxton’s films and photographs of Moffitt modeling the designs. Many of the colors, looks, poses, and images that come to mind when we think “1960s” seem to have had their most concentrated, compact, and potent realization through their collaborative efforts.
It’s interesting to note that photography, fashion design, and modeling have all at one time or another been kept out of the hallowed halls of museum curation: a question mark still hangs over fashion design, and few have even articulated the question about modeling. Bringing unaccustomed visitors into serious rooms may be a thoroughly apt framework for conceptualizing the exhibit itself since this seems to be very much the working style of Gernreich. Gernreich made a career out of seeking out designs, materials, and ideas that had never been used in fashion before: vinyl clothing, a trippy, eye-popping palette, body decals, a “no-bra” bra, portholes to expose parts of the body usually covered, and bits of clothing covering parts of the body usually exposed.
Gernreich was born in Vienna, where he worked in his aunt’s dress shop until the age of 16, when he and his Jewish family fled to Los Angeles in 1938. His first job in the United States as a young man lay decidedly outside the fashion industry: washing cadavers in a morgue as a mortician’s assistant. Though his later designs may, at first glance, look like charming, giddy, and carefree throwbacks to a more naive era, there’s also a darker, now-or-never urgency to them.
Gernreich was captivated by modern dance. After watching a performance by Martha Graham, he temporarily abandoned his pursuit of design and joined the Leslie Horton Modern Dance Troupe from 1942 to 1948. There’s an abiding fascination with motion, with clothing on a living body, in his work. It also suggests why the collaboration—the frequent work with like-minded model and photographer—was so crucial for him. The clothes needed the right person to move them and the right person to capture that movement. William Claxton, a celebrity and personality photographer, perhaps most well-known for his renowned photographs of jazz musicians, and model Peggy Moffitt became Gernreich’s long-term collaborators in the 1960s and 70s, though all three of them were frequent collaborators with other artists and had individual careers outside of their work with each other.
The three creatives grew up and lived under the shadow of nuclear proliferation and the Cold War. Though it’s entirely unstated in the work itself, that dark zeitgeist looms in the designs and its terminology: the total look. There’s nothing like the threat of total destruction to call us into the present moment. Body decals, the monokini, cut-out portholes in clothing, and a dress that ties above the head would never have flown—even as flights of fancy—20 years earlier. It takes a certain mindset to design them and a certain public to receive them, a public hungry for “far-out,” trippy ideas. The trio wasn’t just willing to burn the candle at both ends, they seemed curious to see if there was a way to light the middle, too.
Though Moffitt’s look is worlds away from Marilyn Monroe’s, she was a practitioner of Monroe’s particular art. Monroe first exposed a shifting twentieth century dynamic between artist and model. While it’s always been true that a great artist can create a wonderful image even with a boring model, Monroe made it clear that she could create an exciting image with any photographer: she was the creator of Marilyn. Similarly, Moffitt sought to create movement and a personality, a spirit, for each of the garments she wore. Even in moments of repose she’s pretty striking: sylphlike, with raccoon eyes and a geometric haircut out of German expressionist film, Kabuki white face makeup, and a silent film comedian’s jutting knees and elbows, but she’s almost never in repose. Movement is her look, and it’s total. There’s a note of charming innocence and retro campiness to the film Back to Black, but it’s not without its more serious tones. It has nods to pop and performance art and overarching references to death and mourning that seem to run like a silent black thread through the celebratory giddiness of the work.
“Fashion will go out of fashion” is one of Gernreich’s most memorable declarations, and it suits: predictive, total, terminal. Claxton’s famous photo of Moffitt in Gernreich’s monokini—its geometric lines, Moffitt’s liberated, matter-of-fact coolness in wearing it, the icy clarity of Claxton’s lens—seem not just to encapsulate a 1960s sort of “now,” but our now, as well: it’s not a dated photo in any sense. It’s a fusion between body, garment, and image that still resonates. Their collaborative efforts to create a fleetingly fast ‘now’ moment have come to seem, paradoxically, built to last.