BY MIN CHEN
Nudie Cohn—maker of rhinestone-studded duds and bedazzler to country stars—had very specific ideas of how performers should look. “My impression of an entertainer is, he should wear a flashy outfit to be fair to the public. He shouldn’t be wearing a sport coat like the people in the audience” he said in 1969. “The costume is the first impression and it should be flashy.”
But of course he did. This was, after all, a man who got his start in 1934 producing sparkly g-strings, lingerie, and costumes for his Manhattan burlesque boutique, Nudies for the Ladies, before heeding the call of the West and moving out to Los Angeles in the ‘40s, where, in his new storefront, Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors, he applied the first-ever rhinestone to a cowboy shirt. “Do you have the guts to wear rhinestones?” Cohn quizzed his early client Lefty Frizzell, who answered with a resounding, “Sure!” With that, country and western wear immediately outgrew its denim and suede, and swaggered into a world of brilliant ostentation. Cohn’s creations were intricately bejeweled, flamboyantly fringed outfits made not for ranch work, but to be seen and admired. In short, they belonged on a stage. Not for nothing did Nudie’s motto, echoing Mae West, read, “It’s better to be looked over than to be overlooked.”
Business was brisk at Nudie’s. First came the country singers and performers (Roy Rogers, Hank Williams, Porter Wagoner), then in 1957, the king himself, Elvis Presley, and in his wake and throughout the 1960s, a trail of young country rock and pop players from Keith Richards to Linda Ronstadt to Cher to, famously, Gram Parsons. As Cohn observed in 1969, “Country music has taken over rock and roll.” What his customers sought were what became known as Nudie suits, but more so, for a bit of spit, shine, and spectacle to turn plain ol’ stage presence into sheer pizzazz. Here are just some of Nudie’s greatest and flashiest hits.
Hank Williams Arguably one of the most recognized getups in country music history, this cream colored suit—joyously festooned with motifs of musical notes and guitars—was Williams’ last. It was traveling with him the night he died in a college student’s car in 1953.
Elvis Presley The gold lamé suit that Nudie Rodeo Tailors created for Elvis in 1957 (his manager Colonel Tom Parker was friendly with Cohn) apparently cost a then-whopping $10,000 and was so heavy that Presley rarely donned the entire ensemble.
Gram Parsons and The Flying Burrito Brothers Trust Gram Parsons to shoulder not just Nudie’s most iconic suit (dubbed “Sin City,” and covered with marijuana leaves, poppies, and acid caps), but to produce the perfect cosmic, alt-country sound to match. For the Flying Burrito Brothers’ 1969 debut, he ordered suits for the entire band, before declaring, “Just because we wear sequined suits doesn’t mean we think we’re great; it means we think sequins are great.”
Sly Stone For his early 1970s tours, Stone stepped onstage in an ultra-sparkly Nudie creation (just observe the stage lights reflecting off of his suit in his performance on The Midnight Special), strewn with moons, stars, and other astro bodies, that, as was Cohn’s intention, made for a stunning first impression.
Dolly Parton Nudie’s female clientele may have been small, but no less spectacular. Here’s Parton, like her frequent collaborator Porter Wagoner, wearing the hell out of a Nudie jumpsuit.
From 1975, Nudie’s would not be the lone purveyor of Nudie suits. Manuel Cuevas, Cohn’s protégé and one-time son-in-law, launched and ran Manuel Couture in Los Angeles (just down the street from Nudie’s) and much later, in Nashville, servicing a clutch of country and rock musicians. Famously, he’s been credited for first attiring Johnny Cash in black, although, as he clarified in 2015, “Johnny would have told you that he wore black before he met me, but he just never wore the right kind of black.” Cuevas’ Nudie suits continue to be in demand today, clothing the likes of Jack White and Brandon Flowers.
Nudie Cohn died in 1984 and ten years later, his store was shuttered. It would be more than a decade before Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors was reopened under the auspices of his granddaughter Jamie Nudie, who, after serving as consultant on the 2015 Hank Williams biopic, I Saw The Light, continues to keep Cohn’s legacy in shimmering condition.