Nudie Suits: Flashy Rodeo Fashion Of Rock And Country Stars
Few looks are as famous as the Nudie suit -- the embroidered, rhinestone-drenched getups worn by stars of country and rock music for decades. Gram Parsons, Jimmy Page, Elton John, and ZZ Top were all noted Nudie-wearers of the '60s and '70s, although the style first showed up on classic entertainers like Hank Williams, Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, Porter Wagoner, Dolly Parton and George Jones. The always-outrageous style of the jackets and trousers designed by the late Nudie Cohn (he also did boots, shirts and hats) will probably never go away -- even though Cohn died in 1984, Nudie-inspired designs can be spotted on 21st-century artists from Wilco to Post Malone.
Nudie Cohn attained a cultlike following among musicians of the '50s, '60s and '70s -- from Keith Richards' ruby-encrusted boots to the Elvis Presley’s $10,000 gold lamé tuxedo, Nudie Cohn styled superstars with more flair than Siegfried and Roy. If entertainers wanted their outfits to pop, there was only one man to see.
Nudie’s need to stand out fit perfectly with country and rock 'n roll, “My impression of an entertainer is, he should wear a flashy outfit to be fair to the public," Cohn told Rolling Stone. "He shouldn’t be wearing a sport coat like the people in the audience. The costume is the first impression and it should be flashy.” From G-string manufacturer to tailoring the all-time talents, Nudie Cohn’s story was as eccentric as his name.
Rags To Gemstone Bedazzled Riches:
In 1913, Nudie Cohn (born Nuta Kotlyarenko) came to America at age 11, seeking to escape the violent treatment of Jews in Ukraine. To survive, Cohn shined shoes in front of Carnegie Hall and got his brains beat in as "Battling Nudie," a lackluster boxer. As the Burlesque scene took off, Nudie fashioned pasties and G strings for the girls. When burlesque died, so did Nudie’s G-string business.
Eventually, he and his wife, Bobbie, opened “Nudie’s For The Ladies,” which made attention-demanding undergarments for showgirls. Finally, after trying just about every profession under the sun, Nudie and his wife found real success setting the trend in Western clothing.
Nudie’s Big Break
Initially, Cohn and his wife hand sewed the clothing in their garage and sold them for $20.
Once Nudie felt his repertoire was up to snuff, he approached Tex Williams while the country singer was mowing his grass and offered to make their uniforms. Unfortunately, Williams was broke but sold his quarter horse for $150 and hired Nudie. The rest is history and Nudie’s wife told it best:
Those uniforms were beautiful, and Tex started plugging Nudie over the radio. 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.
Once Lefty Frizzell gave Nudie the confidence to go wild, that’s precisely what he did. As Nudie would say, “It's better to be looked over than to be overlooked!” Quickly stars starting flocking for Nudie suits. Roy Rogers, Hank Williams, John Lennon, Wilie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Cher, and Jimmy Page all became Nudie suit aficionados. Rogers, a great friend to Nudie, even wore a Nudie suit for his final resting place.
From pinched jackets and jeans to garnish-gaudy-and-gauche Nudie pushed Western fashion forward. In time, Nudie started a mail catalog that opened pure Nudie:
Dear Friends, I am Nudie, the Tailor, and my custom is fine clothing for countless Western stars, Sunday riders, dudes and honest-to-goodness wranglers, cowpokes and rodeo folks. I’d be real pleased to meet you and suit you, with the same personal attention I give every day to many wonderful people.
Nudie’s through the mail, I’m sure you’ll see why everyone always comes back.
Every fan of Western horsemanship, whether interested professionally or for pleasure, always will find a warm Western welcome at Nudie’s.
A Nudie Atmosphere
While Nudie’s style certainly set him apart, so did his congeniality. According to his granddaughter, “When you came into Nudie's on Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood, it was like walking into a museum.” Thousands of pictures on the walls of every client my grandfather made clothes for. Going into the tailor-shop part of the 6,000-square-foot building was awesome!
Jamming With Friends
Often Nudie, an avid mandolin player, would jam out with his favorite customers, treating patrons to an impromptu show with the likes of Marty Robbins, Tex Williams, Glen Campbell, or Roy Rogers. Nudie forged such a relationship with Gram Parsons, he even bailed him out of jail, more than once. Apparently, Johnny Cash would come in just talk chat about leather tooling. Nudie passed away in 1984 but his motto, “Real men wear rhinestones,” lives on in the many on-stage costumes to this day.
Nudie Suits Today
The Nudie suit never really went away -- although not all "Nudie" suits are really Nudie suits. Manuel Cuevas, a protege of Nudie, has made Nudie-style suits for years, and younger designers have risen to the challenge of putting their own spin (or not) on the Nudie idea. Jack White, Kesha, Miley Cyrus, Jenny Lewis, Wilco, and Post Malone have all won praise from music style-watchers for their Nudie or Nudie-inspired stage duds.