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Cowboy Tailoring Nudie Cohn (1902-1984)

by Christabel Stewart .

On the 1999 album 'Return of the Grievous Angel' musicians from Beck and Evan Dando to The Rolling Creekdippers pay tribute to Gram Parsons - the subversive Harvard educated hillbilly who invented country-rock in the mid-sixties. The embodiment of an all American culture clash, Parsons straddled generally unassociated musical genres, famously combining his role as frontman of his idiosyncratic country and western band, The Flying Burrito Brothers, with his close friendship with rock legend Keith Richards, culminating in the Rolling Stones track 'Wild Horses' which Parsons persuaded Richards and Jagger to pen for him.

Such pioneering musical vision was underpinned by an unswerving command of sartorial style. The CD booklet for this album is illustrated entirely with Raenne Rubenstein's images of Parsons dressed in 'Nudie suits'. These highly decorative embroidered suits encapsulating Wild West (Hollywood) Cowboy machismo â la Roy Rogers with their decorative glittering rhinestones and colourful embroidery motifs. Marajuana leaves, poppies, roses and pills adorned every surface and naked women took pride of place on the lapels.

Inside the booklet, a photograph captures Gram and Nudie on one of the tailors' fleet of 18 customised Cadillacs, the car bearing highly polished guns, coins, horseshoes and horns as distinctive and laden decoration. A slim Gram kneels bare-chested on the bonnet, fists on hips, sporting hints of Nudie rhinestone decoration on his collars and belt. Nudie pats his back affectionately, he himself dressed as he always was in his own creations -a colourful embroidered green suit with orange shirt, and Roy Orbison look dark glasses and Stetson. These images make manifest the attraction of Nudie Cohn, an exemplary tailor and costumier of a quintessentially west coast American brand of 'rhinestone cowboy' glamour who created a look adored by rock and movie stars.
Born in Kiev, Russia, at the beginning of the Century, Nudka Cohen immigrated with his family to the United States. He spent his early years in Brooklyn, New York, and made the pilgrimage west to California in his teens to experiment with performance both in the boxing ring and in the movie fringes. To augment his earnings, he began making costumes on an individual order basis and, famously, this included minimal rhinestone encrusted costumes for strippers and showgirls. It is disputed whether his name came from association with this end of the entertainment business or if it was an official misprint of his Russian name on entering the States - but it became his moniker at Nudie's Rodeo Tailors, his outfitting business in Los Angeles.

Nudie came to prominence in the early 50s, becoming the custom tailors for Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, the quintessential wholesome Hollywood Pioneer family. For this type of Hollywood version of the western hero, the most spectacular version of outfits was required to meet their fans. In 1957 Nudie made the famous 10,000 gold lame suit for Elvis Presley. Nudie's went on to clothe fantastic array of stars - John Wayne, John Lennon, Ronald Regan, Elton John, Robert Mitcham, Tony Curtis, Hank Williams, ZZ top and Cher, until he died at the age of 81 in 1984 (Nudie's Rodeo Tailors ceased trading for good in 1995).

Nudie's legacy is impressive - he is credited with creating and sustaining a golden age of western wear for forty years - and simultaneously cultivating his own personae as a very colourful figure in the entertainment business. His cult following endures as the clothing and even his car have become highly collectable commodities. A wide range of public institutions including the Costume Institute of the Museum of Modern Art, New York and The Country Music Hall of Fame owns Nudie suits and ephemera, and they are increasingly sought after by numerous private collectors including Dennis Hopper and Vincent Gallo.