Like Twiggy’s figure and Cindy’s mole, Peggy Moffitt’s cropped bangs, pernicious smirk and harrowing eyelashes are part of Fashion’s Lexicon of Looks. More than mere model or muse, Peggy Moffitt was/is a collaborator; an equal in the androgynous aesthetic of Rudi Gernreich. Together they made functional, affordable fashion move, literally and figuratively, in ways that joined the sexes; ignoring gender while highlighting sexuality. Moffitt’s husband William Claxton — one of the finest photographers of the last 40 years — joined the duo to complete fashion’s unholy trio. I caught up with Moffitt in her Los Angeles home before her trip to Philadelphia for the opening of the Gernreich retrospective “Fashion Will Go Out of Fashion” at ICA.
CP: History calls you as muse. I see you as an equal. When did you realize the importance of your role within the collaboration?
PM: We were collaborators — thank you for saying so — but not in a typical way. We were kindred spirits. It’s amazing we met at all. I mean, what is the likelihood, when each person is as unique independently as we were, of meeting your lost chord? We both had met thousands of people. We both worked and got along with thousands of people. But we connected. I felt that the moment we started working together as one, not counting when I was a gun for hire amongst nine other girls. When he started fitting samples on me. 1962.
CP: Since you’re so associated with his clothes, were you possessive? What did you think of those models who came before you? What was his work saying that they could not have understood?
PM: They were a distant cousin. But they were the models everybody used. They had the look: upper class, patrician, station wagons, Wonder Bread kids. American elegant. They had to be missing something. Primarily his wit. No one, not models, not editors, got his wit, his European, slightly naughty humor.
CP: I gather you don’t think much of designers, like say Gaultier, who took what Rudi wrought and made it jokey?
PM: To me, putting a cone bra through a pinstripe suit with slits in it so that the bra pops through is a joke on a woman. “Ha ha” on you, lady. That’s not witty. In general, I don’t see models responding to clothes at all. Now, of course, not all clothes have subtext. And not all designers — like Rudi — would give his model a script in which I could play characters. That’s the fun of clothes. I was trained as an actress, dancer and in theatrical arts. I understood lighting and design. I could find characters in his script. I never held back. It was the height of freedom and liberation.
CP: Were you always as confident as you looked in some of those photos? You seem as defiant and haughty as his clothes.
PM: I never thought or think myself as a beautiful woman. Models always seemed to be “selling” themselves and quite at ease with it. But modeling was cornier back then. Now it’s all tits and ass. … So I used whatever I could — my movement, my talent — to take my mind off of whether I was pretty or whether I was selling myself.
CP: The work you did together was never exploitative of human form, of feminine attributes, or of the fact that he was gay. How is it that you both kept if from being so?
PM: The whole topless thing could’ve been a disaster. I didn’t want to do it when he asked me. I am a puritanical descendent of the Mayflower. I carried that goddamned Plymouth Rock on my back. … When I did give in, I did so with a lot of rules. I would not show myself on the runway that way. I’d do it only with Bill. Since Rudi would never ever have enough money to do this, I did it for free. But I had final say on everywhere it went photographically. Not Playboy. Not Esquire. I didn’t want to be exploited. Not ever. In fact I made quite a scene when in Los Angeles, several years back, the curators of a Rudi exhibit wanted to make another woman go topless in the monokini he had designed for me. I protested because that’s equally exploitative. It wasn’t just about me. It’s about women. I think Rudi and I kept from being exploitative — a real precedent then — because I cared how you do a thing rather than what you do. Everyone was outraged anyway. But at least we did it with, excuse the word, class.