There is an impression of country music as wholesome, simple, and rooted in the conservative values of middle America and the South. One of the many counters to that argument is Nudie Cohn and his Hollywood-sewn “Nudie suits.” These fashion masterpieces are all excess, sometimes with sexy images of naked ladies, pot leaves, pills and poppies, worn by everyone from Hank Williams to Keith Richards to Ronald Reagan. On top of all of that seedy flash, the sequence and flourish is downright camp—he designed for Liberace, and check out the Nudie suit that Elton John wore in this ad for “Rocket Man.”
Nudie’s beginnings were far humbler than the “country luxury” aesthetic he came to create. Born in 1902 in Ukraine, Nuta Kotlyarenko was so poor that he often had mismatched shoes collected from cast-offs (an indignity he later paid homage to by intentionally wearing mismatched boots—though generally of his own high-end custom design). After immigrating to America and changing his name at age 11, Cohn followed in his boot-maker father’s footsteps and apprenticed as a tailor. In 1940, he and his wife moved to LA and started Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors in their garage, quickly becoming the preferred couturier of the country music scene.
Nudie Cohn’s influence went way beyond country though. As he adapted with the 1960s counterculture, his work became even more subversive—the “pot, pills and poppies suit” he made for Gram Parsons (see below) is one example, but was not the only time Cohn used druggy imagery. What made his work impressive though—be it the (supposedly $10,000 suit that cost $50 to make) gold lamé suit he made for Elvis or his own insane custom 1964 Pontiac Bonneville—was not only the over-the-top styling, but the sheer attention to detail and quality craftsmanship of a custom Nudie suit festooned with rhinestones or embroidery. His work has been so influential, obvious imitations rarely measure up, and the glitz and eccentricity of the Nudie Suit was essentially retired after his death in 1984. Nudie suits are highly collectible. Notable collections of Nudie suits have been amassed by actor Vincent Gallo and the late Dennis Hopper.
Helen “Bobbie Nudie” Cohn in custom gown
Roswell-themed suit with UFOs made for Keith Richards
More Nudie after the jump…