Even if you don't recognize the name Nudie Cohn, you absolutely recognize his inimitable style that brought glitz and glamour to the world of couture Western wear. Porter Wagoner, Gram Parsons, Dolly Parton, Elvis Presley and Cher are just a few of the stars who have made "Nudie suits" part of their signature looks. Anyone who has ever combined the traditional elements of Western wear -- Stetson hats, yoked shirts with decorative piping, wide-legged chaps, fringed skirts and cowboy boots -- with the spangles, sequins, and rhinestones associated with stage costumes has the ostentatious design sense, flair for the theatrical, and never-ending promotional savvy of Nudie Cohn to thank.
Who Created Nudie Suits?
Born Nuta Kotlyarenko in Kiev in 1902, his father was a bootmaker whose clients included czars while his mother raised geese and operated a concessions stand at a local theater. In 1913, as reported by The New York Times, the Kotlyarenkos sent young Nuta and his brother Julian to the United States to avoid anti-Jewish pogroms. Upon his arrival at Ellis Island, immigration officers changed his name to Nudie Cohn. According to LA Weekly, Cohn lived a colorful life on the road for decades, with stints as a boxer fighting under the name "Battling Nudie", a film splicer and extra in Hollywood, and an inmate after getting busted for unwittingly transporting illegal substances. Per the official Nudie website, he eventually stopped off in Mankota, Minnesota where he met and married his wife, Helen "Bobbie" Kruger. The Nudies made their way to New York City, where Julian had opened a successful lingerie shop. Nudie and Bobbie started their own shop, Nudies For Ladies, where the most popular product was a spangled G-string worn by exotic dancers in their stage shows.
After the birth of their daughter Barbara, the Cohns made their way to California in the early 1940s and Nudie set up a tailor shop in their garage. Per his granddaughter Jamie Lee Nudie, who adopted her grandfather's first name as her last name, Cohn convinced country singer Tex Williams to auction off a horse and saddle and use the profits to buy Cohn a $140 heavy duty sewing machine. In return, Williams became the first person to wear a custom-made Nudie original. In a 2000 interview with The New York Times Magazine, Bobbie Nudie said of those early days, "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.'' Per Bobbie, Williams started plugging the Cohns' work during his radio program, which brought in more business. In 1947, they opened up a shop on the corner of Victory Boulevard and Vineland Avenue, Nudie's of Hollywood, and it was at that point that Nudie started putting rhinestones on his custom suits. He asked country legend Lefty Frizzell if he "had the guts" to wear rhinestones. When Frizell replied that he did, the Cohns made him a suit featuring his bedazzled initials. Frizell loved it, telling the tailor, "Nudie, anything you want to do -- make it as gaudy as you like." A look and a legend were born.
Nudie's Rodeo Tailors
Cohn approached country music stars Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, who appeared in a series of Hollywood westerns as well as their own syndicated television show, and became their custom tailor, bringing that Nudie design of a traditional country western look featuring a Hollywood twist more publicity. Evans told The New York Times Magazine in 2000, "I would sketch what I wanted and bring it out to them, and they would bring it to fruition. We were with them for years. They were very creative, wonderful, dependable, people...Roy was buried in a western Nudie suit, and Nudie did his hat as well." In 1957, per Graceland, Colonel Tom Parker commissioned Nudie to make Elvis Presley's gold lamé suit, which he wore for the cover of the album 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong: Elvis' Gold Records, Volume 2. It became one of Presley's most iconic outfits in the course of a career filled with memorable sartorial selections.
Country legend Porter Wagoner was also famous for his Nudie suits; his first became a Wagoner trademark, the peach-colored showpiece featuring a covered wagon made up of rhinestones and sequins and an all-over pattern of spangled cacti and wagon wheels. Like his deal with Tex Williams that led to wider publicity and the opportunity to open a store, Cohn sensed that a similar opportunity was possible via working with the then still relatively unknown Wagoner. As Wagoner told The New York Times Magazine, "I hadn't had any hit records yet, and I figured I couldn't afford it, and I told him. He said: 'Let me make the first one free of charge. If it gets you the kind of attention I think it will, you'll order more suits and I'll make my money back soon enough.'" Wagoner's trademark Nudie suits became part of his soon to be legendary look; his mentee, Dolly Parton, also began wearing Nudie creations when she joined the cast of "The Porter Wagoner Show" in 1967, making the relationship between Nudie clothing and country and western glamour and style all the more explicit.
Nudie would go on to hire the talented fashion designer Manuel Cuevas, who designed so many of the intricately embroidered outfits that became the hallmark of country fashion. Cuevas later opened his own shop, Manuel Couture.
'The Sistine Chapel Ceiling of Cowboy Attire'
Nudie's appeal crossed over into the world of rock and roll in the late 1960s. Singer-songwriter Gram Parsons of the country rock hybrid bands The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers ordered a particularly notorious Nudie suit that featured spangled marijuana leaves, poppies, LSD-laced sugar cubes, pill capsules, and naked women, not to mention flames running down each leg and a giant golden cross embroidered across the jacket's back. Parsons wore the suit on the cover of the first Flying Burrito Brothers album, 1969's "The Gilded Palace of Sin." Per Oxford American, Parson's suit, nicknamed "Sin City," is considered by many to be Nudie's masterpiece; rock critic John Robinson called it "the Sistine Chapel ceiling of cowboy attire." Designer Anna Sui told The New York Times Magazine, "It was Gram Parsons who brought Nudie to the rock world and the rock world to Nudie.'' Nudie himself appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in 1969 and counted Cher, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, John Lennon, The Monkees, Linda Ronstadt and Robert Plant among his clients. "My costumes used to be called corny," he told Rolling Stone. "Now they call us mod. I don't care. Country music has took over rock and roll. Doesn't matter to me who buys clothes. Whatever does the best."
Nudie Cohn died in 1984 at the age of 81, but his legacy lives on to this day. Not only do alt-country singer Jeff Tweedy of Wilco and rocker Jack White of The White Stripes, who produced country legend Loretta Lynn's 2004 comeback album "Van Lear Rose," wear obviously Nudie-inspired stage costumes, but breakout country star Lil Nas X has sported fabulously glitzy, attention-getting cowboy get ups since he burst onto the scene in 2019 with "Old Town Road." The black, embroidered and bedazzled "Nudie-style suit" he wore in the "Old Town Road" remix's "official movie" was designed by Indiana-based clothing company Union Western Clothing and, per I-D magazine, took four people over 100 hours to create.
Artists such as Lil Nas X, Post Malone, Kesha, Midland, Jenny Lewis and more have continued to prove that the Nudie's Rodeo Tailors style is always in fashion.
As Nudie Cohn told Rolling Stone in 1969, "My impression of an entertainer is, he should wear a flashy outfit to be fair to the public...The costume is the first impression and it should be flashy." Then and now, plenty of entertainers agree and continue enjoying and honoring Nudie's gleaming, glittering vision.
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