Posted by Susan Doll on January 21, 2013
I love Old Hollywood. In my imagination, I have romanticized the Hollywood of the Golden Age as a glamorous era of larger-than-life, charismatic figures who linger poolside at the best hotels or dance till dawn at the Mocambo. On the fringes of the dream factory are the outrageous characters who thrive in a company town where the extraordinary is ordinary and the extravagant is routine. Among the latter is the famous Nudie Cohn, tailor to the stars. But, Nudie was no studio costumer like Edith Head or Orry-Kelly. Instead, he owned and operated Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors, specializing in western-styled jackets and wildly colored shirts festooned with rhinestones and piping. His primary clients were western movie stars of the Golden Age and country-western singers of the l960s, but his career lasted well into the Age of Aquarius, when he designed a jacket with marijuana leaves for Gram Parsons.
Nudie Cohn was born Nuta Kotlyarenko in Kiev, Russia, in 1902, the son of a bootmaker. According to family legend, his mother ran a concession stand at the local nickelodeon, where Nuta liked to spend his time watching westerns, beginning a life-long love affair with the lore and look of the American West. Nuta and two of his brothers left Russia for America around 1913, so the westerns he saw as little boy must have been from the earliest days of the American film industry—likely the one-reelers of Broncho Billy Anderson. The boy had been apprenticed to a tailor in Kiev, a skill that came in handy when he arrived in New York City.
At Ellis Island, “Nuta Kotlyarenko” was shortened to Nudie Cohn, who took up residence with a Jewish family in Brooklyn. Like most Jewish immigrants, Nudie arrived in this country with little more than the clothes on his back. When he walked to school in the winter with rags on his feet, a kindly teacher gave him a pair of mismatched boots. Later, as a grown man and an American success story, he delighted in wearing expensive, hand-made cowboy boots.
Cohn continued his fascination with the Wild West via Hollywood by flocking to Tom Mix’s westerns. When he became old enough, he left New York for a series of cross-country misadventures that included a brief stint at Leavenworth for trafficking in drugs. Making a living as an itinerant exhibition boxer, Cohn ended up at a boardinghouse in Mankato, Minnesota, where he met and fell in love with Helen Barbara Kruger, the daughter of the owner. The couple moved to Manhattan, where according to Mrs. Cohn in a 2000 interview, they lived in a hotel frequented by colorful characters like notorious gangster Pretty Boy Floyd, with whom they became friendly.
Brother Julius Cohn had found success in the brassiere business, and Nudie went to work for him during the early 1930s. In 1934, he opened a shop called Nudies for the Ladies near Times Square, sewing G-strings and custom-made costumes for the burlesque queens and specialty acts performing in the nearby theaters. Among the costumes were sexy western-style outfits adorned with rhinestones and fringe. In the late 1940s, the Cohns moved to California, hoping to set up shop near Hollywood. Their big break came because of western big-band singer Tex Williams. The musician left Spade Cooley’s band to organize Tex Williams and His Western Caravan. He was searching for a unique look when he met Cohn. Williams was not yet a success and did not have the money to pay for costumes for his entire band. He sold a horse and saddle at auction and gave part of the money to Nudie so he could buy a sewing machine. The Cohns sewed all the suits for Wiliams’s band members in their tiny apartment. When more orders came in, the couple moved to the San Fernando Valley, using a ping-pong table in the garage as their sewing center. The success of the costumes for clients like Williams underscored the value of having celebrities as a client base.
With money borrowed from brother Julius, nicknamed Cactus, Cohn opened a store where he created elaborate shirts, suits, and dresses. He approached Roy Rogers and Dale Evans to allow him to customize their clothing both on and off the screen, and the celebrity couple agreed. Cohn began to build a celebrity client base as well as to sell clothing off the rack to any customer who walked into Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors at Victory Boulevard and Vineland in North Hollywood. After Rogers and Evans were photographed around Hollywood in their Nudie attire, other western stars sought him out. Cohn and wife Helen (whom he called Bobbie) learned to create designs based on the stars’ tastes and preferences. Gene Autry preferred a conservative style, while Roy Rogers loved fringe, which adorned most of the several hundred shirts he purchased from Cohn over the years. Monte Hale opted for huge cowboy hats, generally consulting with Nudie before purchasing. Rex Allen turned out to be the gaudiest of the cowboy stars, often decked out completely in metallic lame with all the western accessories.
Nudie Cohn established himself as the tailor of western garb. Everyone from character actor Slim Pickins to rodeo rider Casey Tibbs shopped at Nudie’s. In the late 1950s, John Wayne stopped in to order authentic cowboy hats for a group of visiting Russian cosmonauts.
As western serials and series waned in popularity, western stars faded away, except for Rogers and Evans who moved to television. Cohn’s star base became dominated by country-western singers, including Hank Thompson, who liked to brag he was Nudie’s second customer after Tex Williams. Hank Williams, country music’s most celebrated and tragic star, appropriated a cowboy-like persona as part of his act. Not only was his band called the Drifting Cowboys, but he recorded under the name Luke the Drifter, who was a world-weary traveler on the road of life. Cohen made Williams’s most famous stage costume, which was a cream-colored western-style suit decorated with blue musical notes. Often seen in black and white photos of the day, few realize that the suit is actually cream and blue. Merle Kilgore, who worked as Williams’s manager, noted “It’s probably the most famous suit in country music history.” Kilgore and Hank Williams, Jr. donated the costume to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001. According to Kilgore, it was Williams’s last suit, which was with him when he died en route to Canton, Ohio, for a New Year’s show.
Manuel Cuevas was Cohn’s onetime partner, former son-in-law, and later a Nashville country clothier. Between Cohn and Cuevas, Nashville’s biggest stars cornered the market on rhinestone-studded costumes. Elaborate, extravagant, and excessive, the suits became part of the show, with stars like Porter Wagoner, Webb Pierce, and Little Jimmy Dickens incorporating jokes about their costumes into patter between songs. The suits themselves were never intended to be jokes—just a singular extravagance for a generation of “Hillbilly Deluxe” singers not known for onstage flamboyance. These suits reflected the Nudie motto: “It is better to be looked over than overlooked.”
Nudie Cohn’s most famous suit was arguably the gold lame tuxedo made for Elvis Presley’s multi-state tour in 1958. The suit became immortal when it appeared on the cover of Elvis’s 1959 album 50,000,000 Can’t Be Wrong. Consisting of slacks and a suit jacket, the tuxedo was Colonel Tom Parker’s idea for the tour. However, Presley was not fond of the costume, because it was impractical for his performing style. Gold lame proved to be a material that did not “breathe,” so the suit was hot to wear under the stage lights. Early in the tour, the slacks were discarded, replaced by plain black pants. Some sources claim that the slacks were too hot and uncomfortable; others revealed that they ripped easily.
Nudie and Helen moved their store to Lankershim Boulevard in the early 1960s. He expanded his business by customizing cars, usually Pontiac Bonnevilles. He and his staff took out the seats and replaced the upholstery with tooled leather, then embellished the cars with guns, bullets, real silver dollars, and even bull horns on the front. Winchester rifles, Colts, and derringers were sent off to be plugged and silver-plated and then used as adornments, gearshifts, or handles. Dubbed Nudiemobiles, the cars were sold or given to Cohn’s friends, including Roy Rogers, George Jones, Webb Pierce, and Buck Owens. Colonel Parker coerced either RCA or a Hollywood studio into buying a gold-plated car tricked out by Nudie for Elvis, but the singer did not like it any more than he had liked the suit. He rarely drove the car; it eventually ended up in the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville after his death.
The music and movie scene changed in the 1970s and 1980s, but Nudie Cohen continued to attract the stars, including Gram Parsons, John Lennon, Steve McQueen, Johnny Cash, Eric Clapton, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and ZZ Topp. His legacy as clothier to musical legends attracted younger generations of rock stars and musicians. Yet, he never lost his interest and love of western films. One of his last major assignments was to design the electric suit in The Electric Horseman, starring Robert Redford as a retired rodeo cowboy.
Nudie Cohen died in 1984; Helen “Bobbie” Cohen followed in 2006.
Martin, Douglas. “Helen Cohn: Fashioned Country Stars’ Gawdy Garb,” New York Times News Service, April 16, 2006.
Nudie, Jamie Lee an Mary Lynn Cabrall. Nudie the Rodeo Tailor: The Life and Times of the Original Rhinestone Cowboy. Gibbs Smith, 2004.
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