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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."