Like a Rhinestone Cowboy: A Brief History of ‘Nudie Suits’
The excessive thought, care and cash poured into the looks of today’s musical artists is nothing new. In fact, legendary names such as Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Hank Williams and even the less flashy Man in Black himself, Johnny Cash, rocked their own bling thanks to the legendary Nudie Cohn's creations. Born Nuta Kotlyarenko in Kiev, Russia, on Dec. 15, 1902, Cohn outfitted many of country music's finest, pioneering now-classic styles that continue to influence the looks of a new generation.
When he was 11 years old, Cohn's parents sent him to America because of anti-Semitism within Czarist Russia. A butchering of the youngster’s name by immigration officials provided him with his new identity. By the late 1930s, Cohn and his wife Bobbie lived in California and marveled at the then-popular "singing cowboy" movies.
“In '39, we came to LA with our daughter, Barbara,” Bobbie told New York Times Magazine in 2000. “We had a house on Woodson Avenue in North Hollywood, and we started on a Ping-Pong table. We made all-wool gabardine shirts with some embroidery, nothing fancy, and some pants, and sold them for $19 apiece.”
When singer Tex Williams wanted stage outfits visible from the nosebleed seats, he auctioned a horse for $150 to help pay for Cohn’s first sewing machine. Cohn then created his first rhinestone-adorned creation from his garage.
“Those uniforms were beautiful, and Tex started plugging Nudie over the radio,” Bobbie added in the same New York Times article. “At the end of '49, we opened our first store, on Victory and Vineland. A lot of these musicians came back and forth to Los Angeles, and Nudie got the idea of putting rhinestones on the suits. And Lefty Frizzell was out here, and Nudie said to him, 'Do you have the guts to wear rhinestones?' Lefty said, 'Sure!' and after that, all we did was make his two initials with rhinestones. Lefty said, 'Nudie, anything you want to do — make it as gaudy as you like,' and so we did.”
As country music shifted from cowboy serials to honky-tonks, Cohn provided visual pizzazz to Williams, Hank Snow, Elvis Presley and a troupe of his earliest and perhaps most colorful clients, the Maddox Brothers & Rose.
By the 1960s, Cohn became known for creating suits that personified his clients’ nicknames and song choices. For instance, “The Wagonmaster” Porter Wagoner's Nudie suits incorporated wagon wheel designs, while Gram Parsons famously wore a suit adorned with pills and marijuana leaves.
In 1969, Rolling Stone put the reach of the Cohn family’s clothing empire into perspective: “Not only does Nudie claim to dress 80 percent of all movie and television Western stars (from Hopalong Cassidy to Lorne Green), he also is reputed to control about three-quarters of the other tailor-made Western clothing business in the U.S., outfitting Porter Wagoner, Jimmy Dean, Audie Murphy, Roy Rogers and perhaps a hundred other stars, as well as thousands of reg'lar folks. All of which helps Nudie stuff an estimated $500,000 a year into his sequined saddle bags” (quote via LA Weekly).
In addition to his bedazzled suits, Cohn loved turning cars into works of art. His most famous designs include Webb Pierce's white Pontiac convertible, adorned with silver dollars and now residing in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, and a similar “Nudie-mobile” made famous in the music video for Dwight Yoakam and Buck Owens’ “Streets of Bakersfield.”
Cohn died in 1984, leaving behind not just his clothing but lessons taught to his understudy, Manuel Cuevas. Though Nudie's Rodeo Tailors permanently closed in 1994, more than 30 years after Cohn's death, Jamie Nudie, the designer's granddaughter, partnered with Bill Miller, the owner of Nashville's Johnny Cash Museum, to open Nudie's Honky Tonk on the city's Lower Broadway. The bar prominently displays many of Cohn's original suits, as well as a 1975 Cadillac Eldorado that Nudie embellished with guns on the door handles and silver dollars.
In 2018, pop star Kesha brought Cohn's name into the mainstream spotlight by rocking a headline-grabbing Nudie suit at the Grammy Awards. Cohn had worn the outfit to his granddaughter's wedding, and it was Jamie Nudie who helped Kesha find the suit for the big night.
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