Nudie Suits Still Make the Cut for Entertainers

Nudie Cohn’s Tiger jacket for Kesha

We all have iconography that we relate to; why not wear it on our sleeve or better yet, use it to advance our personal narrative or even presciently forecast our future? In the case of an entertainer who performs onstage, this concept was clearly on display last week when singer Kesha’s wearable art tiger embellished suit jacket went missing from her dressing room. Going the social media route, she took to Instagram to plead for its safe and speedy return, even promising to kiss whoever found it on the “f*cking mouth.”

No word on whether any smooching actually took place however the jacket has since been anonymously returned after its “accidental” removal. Kesha is not pressing charges and, true to her word, was just happy to have her custom Nudie suit jacket back in one piece in time for her show as she continues her “F*ck The World” tour; a title which gives some further indication of her current mood.  The brouhaha over the heavily embellished, fringed and chain stitched garment piqued my interest in learning more about the history of the iconic “Nudie Suit” inspiring me to research its pedigree.

 Nudie Cohen & one of his custom car creations

Nudie Cohn (born Nuta Kotlyarenko), a Jewish immigrant from Ukraine who arrived at Ellis Island (where he received the unusual moniker which would serve him well) in 1913 at the age of 11.  Cohn eventually became famous by originating the special suits encrusted with rhinestones and outlandish embroidery for his vast and well known country music royalty clientele including Hank Williams, Gene Autry, Johnny Cash, George Jones, Webb Pierce, Glenn Campbell, Roy Rogers, Dolly Parton, Porter Waggoner and Marty Robbins. His suits crossed over to rock, pop and other genres and have been popularized on artists as diverse as Cher, ZZ Top, Tony Curtis, Elton John, David Lee Roth, Sly Stone, Robert Redford (for his role in “The Electric Horseman”), Bob Dylan, Jack White and even Elvis Presley (it’s currently Elvis week commemorating his 1977 death) who wore a $10,000 iconic gold suit made by Nudie on the cover of his 1959 album “500,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong.”

Gold Nudie Suit worn by Elvis

The son of a bootmaker, Cohn had learned the skills which would earn him a place in Nashville history and beyond, in his early years as a tailor’s apprentice. After arriving in America he spent many hours watching old westerns on the silver-screen deciding that something sparkly and eye-catching was missing from the costumes worn by the frontier gunslingers and outlaws. He originally made G-strings for local burlesque queens in the Times Square area, known as Nudie’s for the Ladies. In the 1940’s he relocated to Hollywood with his wife Barbara, where he set up shop in his garage making garments for everybody from actors to showgirls, eventually opening Nudie’s of Hollywood where he came to be known for his colorful designs including three-piece suits and western shirts.

In the ’50s and ’60s Cohn became known as “the rodeo tailor” who could make everything from the most over the top creations which told a story to a simple, elegant pinstripe suit. Soon nearly every major star owned a Nudie suit prompting Cohn to move to a larger North Hollywood location where he also tricked out Cadillacs and Pontiac Bonnevilles complete with Texas longhorns on the hood, silver coins on the dash, guns along the sides or used as gear shifts, and tooled leather interiors. In a nod to his humble beginnings, Cohn would sport mismatched boots with his own ornate suits.

Nudie Cohn & Gram Parsons
Photo: Mike Salisbury

In 1969, Cohn became friends with Gram Parsons who, after leaving the Byrds founded the Flying Burrito Brothers. The band members donned Cohn’s custom suits (Parsons dubbed the style “Cosmic Americana”) on their 1969 debut album “The Gilded Palace of Sin.” Eerily, Parsons short life (he died at 26) was all but foretold on his white suit embroidered with red roses, naked woman on the lapels, syringes, amphetamine pills, marijuana leaves and a cross festooning the jacket, and flames lapping up the side of the pant legs. Parsons died of a morphine and alcohol overdose at Joshua Tree Park where he was subject to a partial cremation after his drugged out friends attempted to carry out his final wishes.

Keith Richards
Photo: Andre Csillag//REX/Shutterstock

A new generation of fans of the Nudie suit included Elvis Costello, Steve Earle, Beck and The Eagles as well as Parsons friend Keith Richards who, as a tribute, wore a custom Nudie suit embroidered with sunsets, cactus flowers, snakes and flying saucers during the Rolling Stones 1973 European tour for “Exile on Main Street”.

Jenny Lewis Rocked a Star of David Nudie Suit at the Beacon Theatre

Although Cohn died in 1984 his granddaughter Jamie Lee Nudie (who changed her name in homage to him) has kept the Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors website alive and still takes custom orders using several of her grandfather’s tricks of the trade including his sewing machines and rhinestone embellishing tools. Many of the original suits can be seen in various museums including the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Protege Manuel Cuevas , Cohn’s onetime head tailor and former son-in-law who is known as the “Rhinestone Rembrandt” is credited with creating the roses and skeletons insignia of the Grateful Dead and with the design of the iconic Sgt. Pepper Beatles suits, as well as Elvis’s famous white jumpsuit. He is 86 and still designing along with his son (Cohn’s grandson) Manuel Cuevas Jr.

Kesha at the Billboard Music Awards

They are responsible for Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy’s 2008 appearance in a white suit embroidered in roses on Saturday Night Live as well as the white suit featuring a rainbow anchored by clouds framing a third eye, a dagger through the heart dripping blood, and a depiction of Mr. Peeps her cat, which Kesha helped create. This suit was a testament to express how she felt during her now dropped lawsuit against Dr. Luke — she wore it during this year’s much hyped Billboard Music Awards performance of Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe.”

Gucci leather Jacket

Interestingly, the name Nudie Suits seems to be the term which denotes this type of garment, even if the garment in question is one of Cuevas’s Manuel Couture creations or that of Nathan Turk, another Jewish immigrant tailor specializing in flashy western wear. The influence of the Nudie Suit can of course still be seen today through designers such as Gucci, Fausto Puglisi, Valentino, Dolce & Gabbana, and others.  Thought for the day If you were to commission a Nudie jacket of your very own, what story would it tell?

– Laurel Marcus

Laurel Marcus

OG journo major who thought Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" was a fashion guide. Desktop comedienne -- the world of fashion gives me no shortage of material.

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