Country music fans of the 1950s can easily call up a mental picture of their favorite performers and visualize those folks in their glitzy stage garb. You may remember when singer Glen Campbell immortalized those fancy suited folks as Rhinestone Cowboys. During that era, anyone who was anyone that performed on the stage of the Nashville, TN Grand Ole Opry sported a glamorous stage costume. Somehow, it seemed to be a de-facto requirement to own and wear a custom designed Nudie Suit if you wanted to be noticed. What was that name you just read—Nudie Suit? Yes, that was the correct name of those costumes and they transcended country and western music and became a big part of the stage wardrobe for any semi-famous entertainer of the 50’s through the 70s and beyond.
What is a Nudie Suit you ask? Nudie Suits are flamboyant, rhinestone-encrusted cowboy outfits worn by country/western singers beginning in the 1950s. The suits were first popularized by the Hollywood singing cowboys like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers and wife Dale Evens. Their popularity quickly spread to many of the most famous music entertainers of the day. Why that name and from where did this art form originate? That is what we want to tell you about in this essay.
Nudie Suits were the creation of a gifted fashion designer by the name of Nuta Kotlyarenko. However, just as it happened to many immigrants, his name was Americanized to Nudie Cohn.
Kotlyarenko was born in 1902 in Kiev, Russia, to a Ukrainian Jewish family. To escape the oppression of Czarist Russia, his parents sent him, at age 11, along with his brother, Julius, to America. Cohn worked his way across the US working as a shoeshine boy and later a boxer. While living in Minnesota, he met and married Helen Kruger. The newlyweds moved to New York City and opened a fashion clothing store specializing in custom-made undergarments for showgirls. In the early 1940s, the couple moved to California to take their fashion career to a next level and began designing and manufacturing clothing in their garage.
Cohn became fascinated by the popular country/western films of the era but he theorized to himself that the stars of those films were not flashy enough and could use a fashion make-over. In 1947, to test his theory, he approached Tex Williams, a somewhat popular western-swing music performer with a proposal. If Williams would buy a sewing machine for Cohn’s shop, Cohn would make clothing for Williams. Williams auctioned one of his horses and purchased the machine with the proceeds. Williams wanted his stage costumes to be so dazzling that no one in the audience could miss seeing him. This request prompted Cohn to hand-sew rhinestones onto every piece of fringe. Thus, Williams’ wearable art became Cohn’s first walking advertisement.
As their creations gained a following, the Cohns opened a store in North Hollywood named Nudie’s of Hollywood dealing exclusively in western wear, which was a style in fashion at the time. Cohn’s designs brought the already-flashy western style to a new level of over-the-top glamour. He designed his suits with the liberal use of rhinestones and themed images in chain stitch embroidery.
Porter And Elvis
In early 1962, Cohn created a design for country singer, Porter Wagoner. The outfit was a peach-colored suit that featured rhinestones; a covered wagon on the suit back; and wagon wheels on the legs. Cohn offered the suit to Wagoner at no cost because he was sure this popular performer (just as Tex Williams) would serve as a live billboard for his clothing line. This theory proved justified and the business grew rapidly. In 1963, the Cohns relocated to a larger North Hollywood facility renamed: Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors. (According to an article on Nudie Cohn in Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia, Porter Wagoner, stated in 2006 that since receiving his first outfit in 1962 from Cohn for free; he had accumulated 52 Nudie Suits each costing between $11,000 and $18,000.)
Many of the custom designed Nudie Suits that the Cohns did for entertainers and other famous personalities became signature looks for their owners. Some examples of this are: Elvis Presley’s $10,000 gold lamé suit featured on the cover of his, 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong album; Hank Williams’ white cowboy suit with musical notations on the sleeves; and Gram Parsons’ suit for the album cover for, The Gilded Palace of Sin. (That suit featured pills, poppies, marijuana leaves, naked women, and a huge cross.) Cohn also designed the costume worn by Robert Redford in the 1979 film, Electric Horseman.
By the 1960s, Nudie Suits had become an established part of the country music scene. If a star was performing at the Grand Ole Opry, odds were that she or he would be performing while wearing a Nudie Suit. These flashy suits weren’t just popular among country stars. Many of the film costumes worn by Roy Rogers and Dale Evans were designed by Nudie Cohn. John Lennon was a customer, as were Elton John, Cher, John Wayne, and even Ronald Reagan, among many other illustrious names. ZZ Top members, Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill, dressed in Nudie Suits for the cover photo of their 1975 album, Fandango!
End Of An Era
Nudie Cohn died in 1984 at the age of 81. Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors remained open for an additional ten years under the ownership of Nudie’s widow Bobbie and their daughter Barbara and later granddaughter Jamie. Bobbie closed the shop in 1994; however, Jamie has carried on the designer’s legacy with a biography and official company website (http://www.nudiesrodeotailor.com). Cohn’s son-in-law, Manuel Cuevas, served as his head tailor for 14 years; and after Cuevas and Cohn’s daughter divorced, Cuevas moved to Memphis and launched his own brand with much success. His son, Manuel Cuevas Jr., has also designed custom suits for some recent musical personalities.
Cohn’s creations, particularly those with notable celebrity connection, remain popular with collectors of country/western and show business memorabilia. These creations continue to command high prices when they appear in the market place. Many of his creations are on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, TN.
The desire to perform in attention grabbing costume has not disappeared as we discovered in the cover story about Kody Norris in our last issue (85) Check out
www.nudiestooretaylor.com for more detailed information about Nudie’s life.