If you’ve noticed a recent proliferation of bedazzled cowboy suits in the music world and beyond – think Lil Nas X, Orville Peck, Kacey Musgraves, and Trixie Mattel – this western-camp aesthetic is not new. Country music loves a stage costume, whether it’s Johnny Cash in black, or the jeans-flannel-boots-hat uniform of country-pop stars, or the trademark, glittering rhinestone creations of country fashion legend, Nudie Cohn. Nudie Cohn, clothing designer and tailor, started the Nudie label and craze for over-the-top embroidered, bedazzled, and colourful stage costumes back in the 1940s. “Nudie Suits” are the clear ancestors of Lil Nas X’s hot pink Versace cowboy suit and Trixie Mattel’s extravagant country-drag, and NMC is fortunate to have seven of Cohn’s trend-setting creations in its collection.
Nudie Cohn was born Nuta Kotlyarenko in Kiev, Ukraine, 1902. His Ukrainian-Jewish family sent Nudie and his brother to America when he was eleven, to escape anti-semetic violence. After a botched pronunciation on Ellis Island, Nuta Kotlyarenko became Nudie Cohn. In the 1940s, Cohn and his wife, Helen “Bobbie” Kruger, relocated to California and opened “Nudie’s of Hollywood,” specializing in western wear.
In 1962, Cohn gave one of his rhinestoned, chain-stitch embroidered suits to country singer Porter Wagoner for free. When Wagoner wore it on stage, business exploded. Elvis Presley’s gold lamé suit, from the album cover of 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong, was a $10,000 creation of the newly-renamed Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors. Other famous customers flocked to Cohn’s custom works of wearable art, including John Lennon, Hank Williams, Cher, Ronald Reagan, John Wayne, and Elton John.
NMC proudly displays and cares for the Nudie Suits of multiple Canadian entertainers. Hank Snow’s Nudie suit is a classic, rife with rhinestones and Cohn’s signature chain-stitch embroidery. King Ganam’s pastel-pink suit recalls Hank Williams’ iconic Nudie suit, with its musical notation embroidery on the sleeves—except with fiddles, perfect for “Canada’s King of the Fiddle.”
Alberta’s k. d. lang is also a fan of Nudie Cohn, and lang donated several of her Nudie suits, and Nudie-inspired suits, to NMC in 2017. Embroidered with cowboys, chuck wagons and horses, her cowboy Nudie suit jacket was worn by lang for promotion of the album Absolute Torch and Twang. Her blue Nudie suit is actually a creation by Manuel Cuevas, who worked with Cohn and continued the legacy of Nudie Suits after Cohn’s passing in 1984. It was worn by lang to the 1990 Grammy Awards, where she won “Best Female Country Performance” for Absolute Torch and Twang.
Are you inspired? Check out NMC’s collection of Nudie Suits here, and start thinking about what YOU’LL wear to Stampede this year.