Nudie suits are iconic. Flashy, stylish and something completely different. This is especially so when they were first introduced by Nuta Kotlyarenko, or more commonly known as, Nudie Cohn. Nudie had set a trend over time, especially through the 1950s and 1960s which still persists today through bands like Midland or in the collective memories of generations of cultures. Whether one considers it either flashy or tacky, it is at the very least remembered as representing a certain style in a certain time.
Nudie was born in Kiev, Russia, sandwiched between four other siblings, on 15 December 1902 to a bootmaker. The family business was in tailoring and Nudie was introduced to the craft at an early age. The Kotlyarenko’s were poor Jews having been in Russia but they were just a step above the peasants who begged for food. But Nudie enjoyed learning his craft and the feel of fabric between his fingers.1 While Nudie was born in an out of the way place for what he would eventually do and become associated with, he had certainly been born into the right family.
In spite of their poverty, Nudie was able to see the local movies at a movie house since his mother, Pearl, would often raise to sell geese at the market and run a mall concession stand at the movie house in Saturdays.2 From here Nudie saw a number of American cowboys and early silent films which undoubtedly influenced him later in life. It was in these screenings bands would also show up and where Nudie was first introduced to an instrument he would later learn, the mandolin.
Nudie’s parents were intent on keeping their children out of Russia. In 1913 Nudie’s older brothers, Sam and Julius, had been sent off to America, escaping Russia and the eventual First World War. This was a dangerous thing to do for Russians, especially Russian Jews at the time but the parents were adamant. Nudie was also likely to have gone to America at this time with Julius but it seems they had been separated at some point. Cabin Fever broke out and some of the boys complained which led to arrests. Julius’ own papers claimed he was from Moscow instead of Kiev and apparently didn’t hint at having other brothers otherwise he may not have escaped. Nudie, for unmentioned reasons, had to return to Kiev and his family.3
Nudie himself was eventually able to reach America but quickly found himself alone and in trouble. Around Cleveland, Ohio, Nudie was asked to deliver a package in exchange for receiving five dollars. Having the naivete of a teenager who had yet to really experience life he had no idea that what he was transporting was actually a package of cocaine. He would spend nine months in Leavenworth Penitentiary and, when he was released, handed five dollars.4 Due to the run-in, Nudie was going to be much more careful in the future.
As the years went on, along with his travels, Nudie made his way to Mankato, Minnesota where he stayed and met his future wife, Bobbie. While there they had their only daughter Barbara before traveling to New York.5 Nudie, however, didn’t stop being a tailor. In these early years he was already working, making such things at G-strings for show girls. While he would eventually get to the rhinestone age, for now he’d wear mismatched boots to remember his beginnings except for Sundays where he’d opt for moccasins.6
Over time Nudie and Bobbie would return to Mankato where he opened a tailor shop. While they only had $300 between them when they married, they were able to make it work for a time. The shop seemed fairly successful as they were able to sell it for $2,700 in 1940.7 With that money and an effort to grow, they moved to Los Angeles.
The family was hardly rich at this time. Setting up in LA, Nudie was using whatever he could in order to get started. He used a Ping-Pong table as a cutting table and littered the area with photos of his favorite movie stars.8 But he wasn’t simply sitting idle. He was seeking out these stars in an attempt to integrate himself into the tailoring business.
Nudie ran into Tex Williams, a country artist of the day and they eventually had a meeting. While Tex wasn’t big on clothing, nor cash, he did need new outfits having just left the Spade Cooley’s band; and instead of cash, Tex offered a horse and saddle which would be auctioned and Nudie would receive the profits from it. While a quite uncommon trade today, these proceeds did help Nudie buy a sewing machine which would help to complete Tex’s outfit.
Tex soon needed help again getting suits for his band. Again, he contacted Nudie. A fateful disaster struck, however, when Nudie’s inebriated assistant wrote down the wrong measurements. Leg lengths received chest measurements, so that none of the outfits fit.9 Nudie had to remake all of them. However, when Tex and the band showed up on stage at the Palace Barn, they created an incredible stir. So much so that the following night, 2,500 people showed up when the average crowd usually numbered no more than 400.
In spite of all of these problems and hiccups, Tex and Nudie were getting along incredibly well. Tex was overjoyed by the outcome of the suits and the people who showed up that Tex paid the $750 owed. Nudie was also overjoyed.10 In fact, he abruptly walked to the men’s room and fainted.
Nudie truly owes much of his fame to his brother, Julius, aka “Cactus”, who was in New York at the time. Cactus was able to help his brother develop a sign and the storefront at 11000 Victory Boulevard in North Hollywood, California. A large sign accompanied the storefront proclaiming, “Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors.” According to Bobbie, however, Nudie would always regret the “Rodeo Tailors” name as it seemed to limit his audience and appeal.11 But Nudie would create many designs and had sought to expand beyond the country-and-western types he soon became associated with.
Rhinestones came about with the introduction of Roy Rodgers. Rodgers wanted to be seen by people even in the nose-bleed sections at Madison Square Gardens and Nudie got to work. When he was done, Nudie presented a metallic-leather fringed shirt with rhinestones which sparkled when the lights hit him on the stage.12 Nudie’s style was set and popular.
But he wasn’t just relegated to men’s wear. Nudie had starts in women’s wear as well, as aforementioned G-strings. He’d also introduce other seductive or overtly sexual clothing of the cheesecake type but for western women. Some were so bare that after trying on one of his “designs”, Bobbie asked, “When are you going to make me the rest of the outfit?” She was only wearing a holster, hat and boots.13
Nudie made it work with his apparel. Asked about his style, Nudie responded, “…every man has an aspect of woman in his personality that longs to be expressed.”14 This was his reasoning for the flashy style and unique designs he created.
Later critics and appraisers would also admit that there were other reasons for the seemingly outrageous suits. The very differently-styled suits was a way to rebel against the current trends of the day, especially in the conforming 1950s and part of the 1960s. As noted here, Chapelle writes, “Custom-tailored in bright colors and featuring designs that combined European folk art with southwestern chic, country music suits such as Porter Wagoner’s cacti-and wagon wheel-adorned outfit proved the perfect antithesis of hte conservative gray flannel suit, the nearly universal form of men’s office apparel of the 1950s and early 1960s.”15 The country stars were upsetting the trend, rebelling in their new styles of music and clothing.
What had once been considered something only feminine, these styles were drifting to masculine. Depending on how the wearer would wear it and how Nudie designed it, these clothes said a number of things all at once. Repeating Nudie’s earlier comment about every man having an aspect of woman, the suits seemed to coincide with song titles that bent against the masculine grain as well. Most notably is Hank Williams’ moaning titles about having been left or proclaiming, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “I Cried Again,” and at the time unreleased, “There’s A Tear In My Beer.”
To more fully acclimate to the American climate, Nudie would do other things to blend. Firstly he converted to Christianity, hanging pictures of Jesus on the walls of his store and using only Nudie, instead of Nuta, during interviews.16 He seemed to be shedding some of his Eastern European roots, but those roots would forever be with him and continue to be used in his unique, creative style.
Nudie wasn’t all about rhinestones and feminine designs in men’s clothing. Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis Presleys’ manager, claimed that he’d give Nudie all the work he could handle if he could get to Houston. But Nudie proclaimed he didn’t have enough money for a plane to get there. The Colonel told Nudie not to worry and simply show up at the airport. When Nudie arrived in Houston, Parker had a large banner in the lobby which read, “Welcome, Colonel Nudie.” Nudie spent the next two days fitting the guests, designing clothes and left with a check for $10,000.17 This relationship with Tom Parker also led to the design of Elvis’ famous gold suit he wore on the 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong: Elvis’ Gold Records, Volume 2, album.
In 1960 Nudie packed up and moved his store to 5015 Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood. Here he’d wheel out a life-size horse in front of the store every single day.18 He was also able to bring along Rose Clements in the mid-1960s, a master embroiderer who received a master’s scholarship for embroidery and knew how to use machines to produce Swiss, chain, and satin stitches.19 Nudie had become so famous on his own by this point that he even showed upon on the Los Angeles tour guide map.
Aside from clothing, Nudie was also into cars. At one time he had a “…fleet of 18, silver stutted, gun toting, cattle stampeding automobiles.” He also continued to work on his mandolin playing, becoming good enough to release the album, “Nudie and His Mandolin.”20 Nudie Cohn had led a miraculous life, had been well-traveled and delivered either an eye sore or a sight-for-sore-eyes depending on one’s view for fashion.
At age 81, in 1984, Nudie Cohn succumbed to cancer. At his funeral 800 people wore Nudie clothes as Dale Evans gave the eulogy and “I’m Headed for the Last Roundup” was sung. Throughout the funeral his decorative white Cadillac was parked out front.21 His only daughter would die only a few years later in 1989, also from cancer. Bobbie continued to leave the store open until she retired in 1994. She would live until 2006 at the age of 92.22
The attractiveness of the suits had come, gone and seem to be on the rebound once more. 1980s and ’90s country stars seemed to want to shed the old ways. A Toronto Star article noted about Martina McBride that there was, “No big hair, no gaudy outfits, no rhinestone flash.”23 But bands like Midland wear it on their album covers and the revival has occurred with purchases of similar styles from the likes of Taylor Swift, Lil Nas X and Post Malone. Nudie suits are not now for country-western stars only, and they never were. Elton John and many others sported the suits and styles as well and the emblematic fashion retains its impact even today.
Nudie’s fashion was flashy, eccentric and incredibly popular. He held on to some of his family’s Russian roots while expanding into the enterprising United States of America. He pushed his way around the country and saddled himself up into a perfect position to treat the stars of his era. If Nudie’s parents hadn’t been able to get him out of Russia, World War I and Stalin’s Soviet Union, the face of fashion in the 1950s and 1960s would’ve been decidedly different. A style like Nudie’s with the onslaught of the Soviet Union would’ve never have been allowed to surface. Nudie had a profound impact on style and culture which is rarely surpassed and remains a permanent fixture on American history and culture.
1 Nudie p 10
2 ibid. p 10
3 ibid. p 10
4 ibid. p 10
5 Jaime Nudie
6 Nudie p 132
7 100 Years p 72
8 Nudie p 18
9 ibid. p 72
10 ibid. p 72
11 ibid. p 30
12 ibid. p 120
13 ibid. p 20
14 The Tacky South
15 Chapelle p 6
16 ibid. p 8
17 Nudie p 134
18 ibid. p 30
19 100 Years p 72
20 Jaime Nudie
21 100 Years p 72
22 New York Times
23 Chapelle p3
Beard, Tyler. “100 Years of Western Wear.” Google Books. Google, n.d. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=BxdipV0WeI0C&oi=fnd&pg=PA9&dq=nudie%2Bsuits&ots=BzeG4uSHdZ&sig=iYUtyuyot5HcfTQW4BkT_H-B04k#v=onepage&q=nudie%20suits&f=false.
Burnett, Katherine, Monica Carol Miller, and Scott Romine, eds. “The Tacky South.” Google Books. Google, n.d. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=t0NIEAAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PT226&dq=nudie%2Bcohn&ots=fyWwUyyi5f&sig=jzdrtPM8bv6-RDkJ4fbYMy__-JE#v=onepage&q=nudie%20cohn&f=false.
La Chapelle, Peter. “All That Glitters: Country Music, Taste, and the Politics of the Rhinestone ‘Nudie’ Suit.” The Journal of the Costume Society of America, July 18, 2013. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1179/036121101805297743.
Martin, Douglas. “Bobbie Nudie, Purveyor of Glitter to Rhinestone Cowboys, Dies at 92.” The New York Times. The New York Times, April 12, 2006. https://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/12/style/bobbie-nudie-purveyor-of-glitter-to-rhinestone-cowboys-dies-at-92.html.
Nudie, Jaime. “Nudie: The Man Who Set Rhinestones in Fashion History.” Nudies Rodeo Tailors Official Website of Nudies Suits, n.d. https://web.archive.org/web/20110823030414/http://www.nudiesrodeotailor.com/bio_01.html.
Nudie, Jamie Lee, and Mary Lynn Cabrall. Nudie: The Rodeo Tailor. Salt Lake City, UT: Gibbs Smith, 2004.