b. Nudie Cohen, 15 December 1902, Kiev, Russia, d. 9 May 1984, North Hollywood, California, USA. The surname has also been given as Cohn but he is usually referred to as just ‘Nudie’. His father was a bootmaker in the Russian army and as a boy he began to learn the trade of a tailor. Around 1911, because of anti-Jewish purges in Russia, he and an elder brother emigrated to the USA, where they initially settled in Brooklyn. Around 1920, he began travelling around the USA, struggling to make a living. He had a brief and financially unrewarding career as a flyweight boxer, appeared as a Hollywood film extra and did tailoring work in the costume department of Warner Brothers. In New York, he even worked on costumes for striptease acts.
In the early 40s, in Los Angeles, Nudie became friendly with country singer Tex Williams, and persuaded Williams that he could make stage costumes for him and his band that would attract attention. Williams was delighted with the result, ordered further costumes and widely advertised their designer. The popularity of his suits quickly spread and soon other west coast artists, especially singing cowboys such as Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Rex Allen were wearing brightly coloured, rhinestone-studded Nudie creations. Nudie designed a ‘free’ suit, whose pattern included wagon wheels and cacti, for Porter Wagoner, then a struggling young hopeful. It was a very shrewd investment on Nudie’s part. Wagoner, who continued to wear Nudie suits on the Grand Ole Opry for a great many years, became Nudie’s best and longest-running advert.
The attraction soon passed on to other country singers and during the 40s and 50s, most of Nashville’s major stars were dressed by Nudie. His first cowboy designs were mainly elaborately decorated western wear, but for the country stars, he designed the clothes for the individual, as he had done with the wagon wheels for Wagoner. Hawkshaw Hawkins’ jacket had a large hawk on the back, Ferlin Husky had husky dogs and Jimmy C. Newman had alligators (after his hit ‘Alligator Man’). Hank Williams regularly wore Nudie-designed drape suits and was actually buried in one. Nudie also designed the stage costumes of Bill Anderson and his band, and Hank Snow, another long-time flamboyant dresser, regularly wore his rhinestone-studded creations. It was Nudie who created the $10, 000 gold lamé tuxedo worn by Elvis Presley and later the flashy suits worn by the Flying Burrito Brothers, which had marijuana leaves embroidered on them, and stage costumes for the Rolling Stones. However, not all of his creations were so brightly coloured, since it was Nudie who was responsible for Johnny Cash’s Man in Black image.
Nudie inevitably became a wealthy man and his own suits usually attracted considerable interest, as did his penchant for jewellery, which often saw him wearing $25, 000 worth of gold (he was once described as ‘a caricature of an American cowboy drawn by an enraged Russian cartoonist’). He was also noted for his famous white Pontiac convertible. The hood had giant Texas longhorn horn ornaments, while the interior contained patterned hand tooled leather, with a silver saddle between the rear seats. There were 14 guns mounted in varying positions, which included Colt revolvers that worked as arm rests and door handles, gear lever and direction indicators and three rifles on the rear boot lid. The interior was decorated with hundreds of silver dollars, the front bumper had chrome quarter horses and the tape player could blast out a recording of a cattle stampede, while the horn played Dale Evans singing ‘Happy Trails’. It seems that when they were going out together, Nudie’s wife Bobbie (b. Helen Barbara Kruger, USA, d. 7 April 2006, California, USA), not surprisingly, used to suggest that they took her car. Naturally, the car was at one point stolen, but the police appear to have had little trouble finding it again. Later there were several other Nudie-designed cars, which over the years have had several owners, including Webb Pierce and Hank Williams Jnr.
Nudie died from natural causes in May 1984 but Bobbie continued to operate their store for several years afterwards. Nudie, who was once quoted as saying, ‘If Tom Mix got out of his grave and saw my clothes, he’d get back in again’, was always proud of his achievements but never forgot the early days of struggle. A reminder was the photograph sent to him by famous American strip artist Lili St. Cyr, and autographed with: ‘If I ever wear clothes, they’ll be yours’, which he proudly displayed in his store. For many years, clothes bearing a label that said ‘Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors, North Hollywood, California’, were very much a status symbol to country artists. Nudie also played mandolin and apparently recorded an album featuring himself on that instrument, but recording data is seemingly not readily available.
In 1974, Manuel Cuevas (b. Manuel Arturo José Cuevas Martinez, Coalcomán, Michoacán. Mexico), who had started to work for Nudie in the late 50s, formed his own Manuel’s Western Wear in North Hollywood, from which he carried on the traditions of dressing stars, including Dolly Parton, Marty Stuart and Dwight Yoakam, in styles he had learned while with Nudie.