Country Music’s Sparkle King
Fashion designer Nudie Cohn, a Ukrainian-born Jew, gave country music its trademark rhinestone sparkle
Singer Glen Campbell may have popularized the term “rhinestone cowboy” with his 1975 hit single, but the concept—country-music performers decked out in spangled suits—was invented two decades earlier by a designer whose roots lay thousands of miles from Nashville. Nudie Cohn, a Jewish immigrant from Ukraine, was the man who originated the elaborate, rhinestone-covered outfits that have long been a hallmark of country music’s fashion.
When thousands of country fans descend upon Nashville for the Country Music Association’s annual festival next week, they’ll have the chance to view Cohn’s greatest rhinestone-covered creations at the Country Music Hall of Fame. Cohn designed suits for country-music legends like Hank Williams, Gene Autry, and Johnny Cash—as well as Campbell himself. Cohn’s work later helped inspire a movement that redefined the country sound with artists like Wilco and Ryan Adams. He wasn’t boxed in by musical genres: He gave Elvis Presley one of his most iconic looks. And many performers far outside the country genre have gone Nudie over the years, from ZZ Top to Cher and Tony Curtis, while “Nudie suits” have remained cool among generation-defining musicians who defy musical boundaries, from Bob Dylan to Jack White. But the look remains an iconic cowboy classic, first and foremost.
While a lot of performers can claim a measure of credit for giving country music its sound, one man alone can claim the lion’s share of credit for giving country music its look, as the exhibit makes clear.
In 1913, Nuta Kotlyarenko was sent away from his home in Kiev by his parents, who hoped to save their child from the frequent Ukrainian pogroms. He was 11 years old, and the only skills he had were learned from his time as a tailor’s apprentice. His family, like so many other Eastern European Jewish families, was involved in the clothing business: His father was a boot maker who felt the garment business held more promise for his son than his own trade. When the young boy arrived at Ellis Island, his last name was shortened to Cohn, and the immigration official didn’t know how to spell his first name, so he wrote “Nudie” on his papers instead, and the name stuck.
“He came to New York with his brother, Julius,” said Cohn’s granddaughter Jamie Lee Nudie, who changed her own last name to her grandfather’s first name as a tribute to him. “Julius was older and interested in girls and sort of let my grandfather fend for himself.” She told me that her grandfather’s early years in the United States were lonely, and he spent a lot of time at movie theaters: “He’d go and watch the old westerns.” Cohn idolized the cowboys he watched on the big screen, she said, and it was during those hours spent watching his silver-screen heroes that he realized that there was something missing from the costumes worn by the frontier gunslingers and outlaws.
The early 1930s found Cohn doing something familiar to many Americans during the Great Depression: roaming the country, looking for work. He held odd jobs shining shoes, tailoring, and even trafficking narcotics—a job that landed him behind bars in Leavenworth. When Cohn was released, his path down the straight and narrow led him to a boarding house in Mankato, Minn., where he met Bobbie Kruger. The two married in 1934, had their only child, Barbara, and moved to New York City, where Cohn and Kruger started their first business: making G-strings for local burlesque queens and selling them out of their store near Times Square, Nudie’s for the Ladies.
In the 1940s, the Cohns relocated to Hollywood. They set up shop in the garage of their home, making garments for everybody in Hollywood from actors to showgirls. Then, in a fitting twist of fate, the cowboys Cohn had grown up idolizing came calling, and he became the best-known tailor for country-western singers making their way through California.
By the end of the decade, Cohn had the reputation as the area’s premier tailor for country wear, and he opened Nudie’s of Hollywood on the corner of Vineland and Victory in North Hollywood. Out of his store, Cohn did it all: from three-piece suits to the more traditional western shirts that had been popularized by singing cowboys like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. Rogers was so impressed by Cohn’s designs that he asked Cohn to design many of the colorful western shirts that he and his wife Dale Evans wore on their popular television program, The Roy Rogers Show.
Working for “The King of Cowboys” made Cohn famous, but when musician Lefty Frizzell approached him in 1957 to create something that would help him stand out on bills featuring larger acts, Cohn inadvertently crafted his own legacy as a designer by spelling out Frizzell’s initials in blue rhinestones. In retrospect, it seems like a simple idea: If you want to draw attention to something, make it bright and shiny. But according to his granddaughter, Cohn was the first person in country music to apply this concept to suits, like the ones he designed for icons like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. “He was the first person to do that,” she said. “That’s how it got started.”
There’s very little evidence to dispute her claim. Nathan Turk, also a Jewish immigrant tailor who specialized in western wear, put rhinestones on many of his creations after Cohn did, but there’s no evidence of the practice that predates Cohn. And since flashy characters and loud suits dominated postwar country, Cohn’s sparkle and shine helped him become the most important tailor in all of country music.
In the 1950s and ’60s, Cohn made suits for everybody: a black suit with lightning bolts for George Jones, a pink suit for Webb Pierce with a wandering cowboy behind jail bars on the back, and one outfit for Marty Robbins that the Country Music Hall of Fame’s curatorial director Mick Buck called “one of the most colorful and mind-blowing designs I’ve seen from a rodeo tailor”—it’s also Buck’s personal favorite in the museum’s collection, which he recently curated for an exhibition of Cohn’s work, “Silver Threads and Golden Needles: Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors.” Buck is fast to point out that while Cohn was known for making “over the top” designs, he could just as easily create simple, elegant suits, like the pinstripe number Cohn made for Hank Williams that’s on display at the museum. But Cohn’s most famous work might be the $10,000 gold lamé suit he created for Elvis Presley, which the King wore on the cover of his 1959 album 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong.
By the 1960s, Cohn’s colorful suits were part of the country-music establishment. Nearly every major star that graced the Grand Ole Opry stage owned at least one Nudie Suit, and in 1963, Cohn moved the store to a larger North Hollywood location on Lankershim Boulevard. That same year, after attending his wife’s church for decades, Cohn converted to Christianity—much to the dismay of his Jewish family—but his granddaughter insists that Cohn never denied his roots: “He had a necklace that I have now, and it has a Jewish star on there and a Christian cross on it. He was unique.”
Cohn’s work was legendary by the end of the decade. He even translated his trademark look onto other products: Cohn got into the custom car business, tricking out Cadillacs and Pontiac Bonnevilles into Nudie Mobiles with Texas longhorns on the hood, leather interiors embroidered with wagon wheels, and saddles instead of children’s car seats.
Going on a book tour just a few weeks after my father died, I learned how to walk in his shoes—literally