Western Looks: Nudie's Rodeo Tailors
If you're someone obsessed with the excesses of the cowboy world, as I am, sooner or later you will learn about Nudie Cohn — typically sooner. He was a North Hollywood tailor who specialized in flamboyant Western wear, and, as a result, created a number of iconic outfits, including Elivis Presley's gold lamé suit from the cover of "50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong." Hank Williams' musical note-emblazoned white suit, and the pot leaf and pill-illustrated jacket worn by Gram Parsons on the cover of "The Gilded Palace of Sin."
There might be moments when it sounds like I am duplicating the Wikipedia entry for Cohn writing this, I know. It's going to be hard for me not to, as I wrote the Wikipedia entry for Cohn. So to avoid that, let me mention some thing that I have learned since I first wrote the article, all the way back in 2006.
Newsweek wrote about him for a syndicated column in 1971, and provided this awesome description of the man: "He looks ... like the caricature of an American cowboy drawn by an enraged Russian cartoonist." There's a reason for this: Nudie was a Ukranian Jew, and so he didn't have the sort of body or physiognomy you'd typically associate with a cowboy. He was squat and round, and deeply eccentric: He wore mismatched shoes his entire life. He claimed that it was to remind himself of when he was too poor to buy matching shoes when he was young.
Nudie also had a flamboyant sense of showmanship, all in service of self-promotion. He wore his own suits. He drove around customs cars tricked out with horns from Texas steer and chrome horseshoes, with pistols mounted in place of door handles. His car horn played a recording of stampeding cattle.
It's not clear when Nudie developed his interest in the world of cowboys. He was boxer in his youth on Pitkin Avenue in Brooklyn, and from here details get a little sketchy. At some point he wound up in a boarding house in Mankato, Minnesota, where he met Helen Kruger, better known as Bobbie, and they married. Either in Minneapolis or New York they opened "Nudie's for the Ladies," specializing in costumes for burlesque artists. In the 40s, they relocated to Hollywood, where Nudie apparently tried to get work in films and eventually started manufacturing custom Western gear, reportedly with a loan from Tex Williams, who was the first to wear what would become known as Nudie suits.
There are a few things I want to note here: Firstly, Nudie Cohn did not invent the flamboyant cowboy costume he became known for. Cowboys, especially performing cowboys, had been wearing spangled and decorated suits since at least the days of Buffalo Bill, and their decorative motifs were likely borrowed from both Native Americans, who favored fringes and elaborate decorations, and the vaquero, with his Spanish influenced guayabera shirt and bolero jackets, as well as Mexican horsemen, called charros, who wore highly embroidered suits.
There was another influence as well, not as well-known: The earliest custom tailors for Hollywood cowboys included "Rodeo" Ben Lichtenstein, who designed flashy but comfortable Western clothes for the rodeo circuit, and Nathan Turk, who added elaborate custom embroidery to cowboy shirts. Both men were from Europe, both were Jewish (like Cohn), and both incorporated Eastern European designs into their clothes; it is impossible to look at Turk's shirts and not see patterns from folk costumes of Poland and Czechoslovakia.
But Nudie brought to all this a burlesque sensibility, making increased use of lamé fabrics and sequins, both of which are impractical for actual cowboying due to how easily they are damaged. Nudie was also likely the first to add rhinestones to his costumes, another element borrowed from showgirl costumes.
Bob Proehl talks about the appeal of Nudie suits in his book about the Flying Burrito Brothers, titled "The Gilded Palace of Sin" after their most famous album. While Rodeo Ben and Nathan Turk provided relatively elegant designs, Nudie's work was "completely over the top ... Nudie's compositions were almost hallucinogenic. With imagery personalized to the performer and rhinestone's encrusting the emroidery and often extending onto the fringe that trimmed sleeves, yokes, and bibs, the suits were amazing show pieces, performances unto themselves."
It's worth mentioning that Nudie was a showman, and so attracted a lot of attention to himself, but he cofounded the business with his wife Bobbie and she continued it after his death, along with her sister, daughter, and granddaughter. Bobbie was reportedly responsible for the business side of Nudie's Rodeo Tailors, and was also reportedly the model for their early logo, a nude cowgirl twirling a lariat. She was also responsible for the store's motto, which she may have coined: "It is better to be looked over than overlooked."
So when we speak of Nudie's Rodeo Tailors, we must think of it as a collaborative effort and not mistakenly give all the credit to Nudie Cohn. He seems to have been the visionary behind the clothes designs, but his visions were made possible by his partnership with his wife and the support of an entire family of Minnesota women.