There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
It was Roy Rogers who made Nudie what he was. Slated to appear at Madison Square Garden, the famous Western star wanted to make sure everyone saw him. So he called on the imaginative “rodeo tailor.”
“Nudie loaded up a metallic-leather fringed shirt with rhinestones, and when Roy made his entrance and the lights hit him, he sparkled up a storm.” So recounts Nudie the Rodeo Tailor: The Life and Times of the Original Rhinestone Cowboy, Jamie Lee Nudie and Mary Lynn Cabrall’s picture-book-cum-bio on Jamie Lee’s famous granddad.
They don’t give us the date—the book isn’t strong on such detail—and they don’t give us the photo. But if you’re at all familiar with Nudie (1902–1984), you can get the picture. Any rhinestone cowboy you ever saw—Nudie inspired Glen Campbell to write his song—any tricked-up celluloid rider, anyone with the kind of cowboy duds that ought never to be sprayed with cow shit probably owed something to the fevered imagination of the Russian immigrant tailor, whose famous shop still exists online.
Nudie always grasped at the cuffs of American celebrity. After brief stints as an errand boy for Eddie Cantor, a stage-fright-struck musician, a 106-pound pugilist called “Battling Nudie,” a negative cutter in Hollywood, and a Leavenworth inmate (in 1918, he was caught delivering a package containing cocaine), he returned to the family trade in the ’20s. He and his wife, Bobbie Cohn—whom he met in the genuine horse country of Mankato, Minn.—opened Nudie’s for the Ladies near Times Square in 1934. (“[H]e toiled in the cramped, hot dressing rooms of a dying vaudeville and a burgeoning burlesque.”) By the ’40s, the couple was in Hollywood, where the enterprising stitcher “made frequent trips to the drugstore, eyeing the lovely young ladies who populated Tinsel Town, on the proposition of getting them out of their pants and into his—custom-made trousers, that is.” Working from a pingpong table in his garage, he convinced country-western musician Tex Williams to buy him a sewing machine so that he could make costumes for Williams’ band. He opened Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors in 1950; the famous storefront with bucking broncos on the roof and a life-size horse on the sidewalk, on Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood, didn’t open until 1960, by which time his reputation was well-established.
Nudie’s themed suits were exquisite. Webb Pierce had one based on his song “In the Jailhouse Now,” pictured in the book; it featured keys on the upper lapels and barred buildings on the jacket and trousers. (Paths leading away from the jailhouses on the legs featured signposts reading “To Nudie’s.”) He also did more standard couture—if not workaday clothing for real cowpokes. He provided costumes for Bonanza and The Andy Griffith Show, and he tailored for real equestrians as well as celluloid ones.
It wasn’t just for anyone with a drawl; it was for anyone with a need for a big hat or a lapel full of spangles. The best-known Nudie suit was a tuxedo made of gold lamé; it encased the notorious hips of one Elvis Presley on the cover of 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong. It was often described as a “$10,000 suit,” though the book reveals: “Nudie remarked that $9,950 of the price was pure profit….[T]he bill to Elvis for the suit was probably $2,500.”
The glitzy needlesmith made the leap that the King himself failed to make: from Eisenhower-era flashmaster to paisley-era ironic hipster. As the Flying Burrito Brothers reinvented country music for the patchouli set, Gram Parsons became one of Nudie’s best customers. (His most famous suit was emblazoned with marijuana leaves; it doesn’t appear in this squeaky-clean book.) The fad spread beyond California: In a promo shot from the early ’70s, Elton John is shown with the big brim of his cowboy hat full of fist-sized stars and a two-piece white suit embroidered with roses. Nudie, who favored his own duds, made the cover of Rolling Stone in 1969, next to the quote “Don’t give me no plastic saddle, Hollywood, I want to feel that leather when I ride.”
How he got on that high horse—well, that’s not explained in detail in Nudie and Cabrall’s book. We get basic biographical detail: the origin of his name (when 11-year-old Nuta Kotlyarenko emigrated to the United States in the 1910s, Ellis Island renamed him “Nudie Cohn”), the source of his fondness for the American West (his mother ran the concession stand in the local movie house, where “Nuta’s young imagination was intrigued with the American celluloid cowboys who came thundering across the screen”), even his later predilection for mismatched boots (the impoverished Brooklynite was once given two odd boots by a compassionate schoolteacher). His father was, in fact, a bootmaker back in Kiev, and he was a tailor’s apprentice as a child. But the source of his outsize imagination, the tricks to the business acumen that made him a Hollywood legend, and any darker side of a life spent measuring the glitterati’s inseams are overlooked.
What we’ve got here instead is a dazzling data dump from the Nudie family photo albums, arranged in a book whose design (by Dawn DeVries Sokol) is as kitschy and minutely detailed as the work of the man himself, exuberantly lashed with curlicue “stitches” and a passel of Wild West fonts. The die-cut cover opens onto an endpaper of the man himself, looking dapper in a kelly-green suit studded with a vaguely Native American design, behind the wheel of one of the ornate cars he decorated in his spare time.
A whole book could be devoted to the Nudie Mobiles, but there’s just one intriguing chapter here, which explains that Nudie got a car, usually a white Pontiac convertible, from General Motors every year from the mid-’50s to the mid-’70s. Nudie would customize these cars as lavishly as his couture. One Bonneville was decorated with 555 silver dollars—on the dash, the armrests, and the silver-topped saddle he added between the front seats—and it used pistols to operate the doors, transmission (a pull of the trigger changed gears), and horn.
There’s much to be seen in Nudie, especially for design aficionados, with close-up detail of some of the chain-stitch embroidery, rhinestones, leatherwork, and other offerings from the Nudie studio. Celeb watchers will enjoy photos of the famous and the once-famous, from Campbell (dressed as if he never contemplated a star-spangled rodeo) and Ann-Margret to major Nudie customer Judy Lynn (“Now thru July 1 [at] Harrah’s Reno”). There’s plenty of good stuff to read, of course, though you could just stick to the pull quotes and photo captions (“the rhinestone outlining on Nudie suits rivals the electricity of Las Vegas for pure dazzle”) and be sufficiently entertained. (When, near the end of the chapter “Nudie’s for the Ladies,” a photo of one woman entertainer is cattily captioned “That’s no lady, that’s k.d. lang!” you sense that the apples haven’t fallen far from the Nudie family tree.) Mostly it’s lots and lots and lots of shots of Grandpa, with his Stetson, his clunky glasses, his smile like a hammock stretched between a couple of cartoon tree trunks, his paunch ever growing between his glittery lapels.
In the chapter called “The Stars”—where Nudie hangs out with his customers—explanations are tantalizingly absent. Did a barefoot Goldie Hawn pick up a pair of custom boots at the store? What is the mosaiclike picture held by Dean Martin and Nudie in their grip-and-grin shot? And what on earth did Nudie ever do for Regis Philbin?
Through the candy-floss coating of his granddaughter’s prose, you can still glimpse anecdotes of simple charm, such as when the Russian immigrant was commissioned by John Wayne to make and present hats to a group of cosmonauts. Nudie was a proud businessman—though the sometime mandolin player must have seethed, at least occasionally, about playing second fiddle to the dudes whose shoulder pads he installed. And he was apparently a happy family man—although there’s an element of the-lady-protests-too-much about the chapter showing Nudie with lotsa hotties, including a lanky brunette in a spangled, ’70s-looking halter top, the caption of which photo reads: “Such a look on Nudie’s face: how’d a guy get so lucky? He had an understanding wife who stood by him, that’s how. But don’t pity Bobbie, she gets her chance at being photographed with some leading men, too.”
Hmmm. There’s probably a larger story to be told here: about the family business and its familial and business pressures, about the history of fancy dress in cowboy culture (vaqueros are mentioned briefly), about latter-day hipster adoption of kitsch. Some smaller stories could have been gussied up as well, such as the “suit parties” of Nudie’s later life, in which socialites would commission him to dress entire galas.
Ultimately, Nudie is little more than a purty coffee-table book. But if the inside story of the canny businessman/artist has yet to be written, this lavish, worshipful effort is not without its pleasures. Nudie himself would surely approve; after all, he knew the importance of looking good.CP