It’s not much of a secret that I love country music. The good stuff, the old mid-20th-century stuff, with a firmish wall somewhere in the early 80s that gets breached only by a few holdovers from the previous era or traditionalists looking back and working with the tools of that age.
It’s the music I grew up with in rural Nebraska. The house I grew up in—originally, per my grandfather, a shack to store corn in that was then retrofitted into a house—was small, and the living room was dominated by my parents’ enormous stereo console, and I have two competing good memories there: listening to them play Hank Williams and Johnny Horton really, really loud, and sitting next to the console pulling vinyl off the shelves, looking at the album art (I often roll my eyes now when I hear people wax rhapsodic about how digital music takes away the album art experience, but hell, maybe they’re on to something).
I was always struck by the art on the albums; it consisted mostly of pictures of the artists, and I always thought it was cool just how fancy they looked, men and women alike. In many, many of them, they’d be wearing these elaborately embroidered suits covered with western signifiers: horses, horseshoes, stars, abstract floral patterns. I think even then I was a little bit attuned to the sameness of it, but I didn’t have the mental tools to put it all together yet.
Suit: great. Music: kinda
So I was really excited, but not really surprised, to learn a couple of decades later that these embroidered suits were definitely A Thing, and that they had an (awesome) name: Nudie Suits. So-called not because of nudity (usually), but in honor of the man behind them (or at least the man whose atelier was behind them, with his wife sharing in a lot of the design work), Nuta Kotlyarenko, AKA Nudie Cohn, the dude who absolutely dominated the look of 20th century country music.
The Flying Burrito Brothers, straddling a couple of genres, leaned hard on Nudie suits to convey that they were a country band. Also, note that Gram Parsons’ (2nd from left) lapels feature a relatively rare instance of actual nudity on a Nudie Suit.
Nudie Cohn’s biography is one of those great, wild old-fashioned American success stories. He was born in Kiev in 1902; his family sent him and his brother to America when he was young to escape Czarist pogroms in 1914. He drifted a bit in his youth, doing time in prison, picking tailoring skills up along the way and meeting his wife, Helen Barbara Kruger (AKA Bobbie Nudie) in Mankato, Minnesota (pro tip: everybody worth knowing about has a Minnesota connection).
In 1934, Nudie and Bobbie moved to New York and started an apparel store called Nudie’s for the Ladies in Manhattan, specializing in g-strings and show costumes for showgirls. In the 40s, they moved to LA and re-established the business as Nudie’s of Hollywood, and later as Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors. After the move to California, Nudie and Bobbie specialized in western wear. They didn’t invent their look from whole cloth, but rather took some established basics and amped them up to outrageous levels and then added rhinestones on top of that. The look steadily caught on, and by the 60s, Nudie Suits were the look for country music. Cohn even encountered the Lego/Kleenex problem, wherein his creation was so popular that its name shifted to largely mean “everything in that general category” rather than “the specific thing made by that person or company.” Which, sure, it’s a problem, but it’s a nice one to have.
Porter Wagoner, an absolute Nudie Suit champ
Merle Travis often featured his butt-ugly handbuilt guitar on Nudie suits
Why did country artists flock to Nudie suits? I think it comes down to communication. Aside from the basic “I am a country music artist” communication provided by the standard country music singer cowboy hat, Nudie Suits provide a couple of other encoded messages: “I am a lot, as you can see from my rhinestones” and “I’m enough of a high roller that I can afford a suit that is not only bespoke but custom-embroidered with a shitload of bling.” It’s really ironic to me that country music fans would later largely age into being cultural conservatives who groused about ostentatious rappers wearing a lot of gold rings and chains, when the rappers were just doing a different version of what Porter Wagoner had been doing with all of those fancy-Dan suits.
Run-DMC’s chains were maybe more efficient as signifiers than full suits.
And it makes sense that rappers would be using their clothes to communicate the same things as early-generation country stars; both genres lie heavily on a rags-to-riches narrative outside of the music, this idea that the person singing is extra authentic because they came from nothing but are so talented that they are now visibly wealthy and fabulous. This kind of communication has come through clothes basically as long as we’ve had society; my very first art world job was working as an admin assistant for a curator of textile art who was fond of saying that in just about any society, she could tell you a lot about the fabulous things that the royalty would wear and just about nothing about what the peasants would wear.
But yeah, communication through clothes—of status, of fabulosity, of authenticity—is especially popular in music. I went to a (fascinating) “retrospective” exhibit about Bowie a few years ago that was about 90% costumes; “the clothes make the man” is a cliché for a reason. Think about the absolute pantheon of 80s MTV-era artists with carefully-calibrated costumes. Think about the Clash, where Paul Simonon’s so-so bass playing was widely acknowledged by the entire group to be balanced out by his superior fashion sense.
Think, as far as that goes, about the often-unacknowledged way that different forms of music have their own distinct fashion aesthetics. If I say someone’s dressed with a hiphop aesthetic, a firm picture forms in your head. Same if I said punk. Or hair metal. And if I said “old-timey country,” I bet a picture of a lanky man in a Nudie suit pops into your head.
Nudie Cohn died in 1984 after a long and colorful life; Bobbie Nudie hung on until 2006. But, even if their glam aesthetic has receded a little bit from mainstream country music (although Lil Nas X sure seems to be bringing it back into the big sales channel), it’s alive and well along the interesting fringes. Witness the extreme fabulosity of Orville Peck, whose music is also pretty goddamned good.
Lil Nas X, absolutely in keeping with communicating country status and fabulosity.
Orville Peck, playing the same game but trying a different tack.
Right on. Be safe.
If you’re interested in the stories of country music, one of the absolute best podcasts I know of in any genre is Tyler Mahan Coe’s Cocaine and Rhinestones (yes, Nudie suits snuck in there). He’s only produced one season so far, and there’s some weirdness there, but that one season is absolute gold and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Go take a quick look at Petra, which is just too damned cool to be real.
OK, so here at the bottom, sorry for the ragged copy editing; my deal with myself was to keep this fast and loose, which is gonna mean typos. On the other hand, that also means it’ll actually come out, instead of being obsessed over.
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