Wednesday, August 19, 2009


The Nudie suit: you know you’re country-rock royalty when you own one of Nudie Cohn’s garish Western-themed outfits. Popularized by Elvis, Porter Waggoner, and Gram Parsons, the Nudie suit came to symbolize the coming of the excess of 1970s America. In the late 1960s, when country music grew out its hair, toked up, and generally California-ized itself, a new generation of kids picked up on those ancient melodies, melded them with psychedelia, and fully embraced a wholesale revival of country music in America. And Nudie Cohn was there to dress it to the nines.

Born Nuta Kotlyarenko in Kiev, Ukraine, Cohn moved to California and became a costume designer. His dazzling designs fit in well with the sweeping grandeur of Hollywood’s westerns. The suits incorporated Southwestern and cowboy iconography, from Conestoga wagons to the Virgin of Guadalupe; each design was accented with dozens of sparkling rhinestones and ran in the thousands of dollars. Eventually, he began to sell these suits to actual country stars, most notably Hank Williams, Porter Wagoner, and even Elvis, who wore gold lamé for the cover of 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong.

The suits found a new generation through the help of Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Bros. Tapping into the Hollywood image of the singing cowboy (but with a decidedly contemporary twist), Parsons had Cohn design a suit with pill bottles, pot leaves, naked women, and a huge, gleaming cross on the back. It was a testament to excess and showmanship, two qualities which Parsons and other country-rock stars of the day had in droves.

Nudie Cohn went on to outfit more stars in the 1970s, and he even began to modify cars into “Nudie Mobiles,” complete with pistol door handles, silver-dollar-studded dashboards, and longhorn horns on the hood of the car. The Nudie suit remains an eccentric fashion footnote in American music history. The design recalls a bygone era of hierarchy within the country music world and a romantic notion of the American West, however hollow and rhinestone bedazzled that notion may prove to be.

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