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Nudie Cohn: Embroidering the Cowboys

‘Nudie suits’ are as legendary as the celebrities who wore them. They are heavily customised bespoke suit, embroidered with rhinestones or studs in Western motifs, and bear the name of their creator, Nudie Cohn, an Ukranian-born tailor who bedazzled America with his bold creations.

Caravans and desert landscapes, bulls, cowboys riding horses in rodeos, poppies, marijuana, pheasants, eagles and other American birds are just some of the motifs ornating the designs by Nudie Cohn. An ode to the ‘Western’ American culture and its landmarks, these decorations found place on the famous suits, but also in dresses, suits, boots and hats that have been favoured by Country performers of the last century.

Shirt, designed by Nudie Cohn, ca. 1970-75. Courtesy MoMu - ModeMuseum Provincie Antwerpen, all rights reserved.

Shirt, designed by Nudie Cohn, ca. 1970-75. Courtesy MoMu - ModeMuseum Provincie Antwerpen, all rights reserved.

Born Nuta Kotlyarenko in 1902, Nudie got his later name when he moved to America with his family at the age of eleven to escape the Czarist pogroms. After working as shoe shiner in front of the Palace Theatre in Broadway, he became an itinerant boxer; it was during one of his travels that Nudie met his wife Helen Barbara Kruger, later Bobbie. Just married, they opened their first store in Manhattan in 1934. ‘Nudie’s for the Ladies’ sold lingerie and G-strings for starlets and burlesque dancers.

Suit, designed by Nudie Cohn, ca. 1970-80. Courtesy MoMu - ModeMuseum Provincie Antwerpen, all rights reserved.

Suit, designed by Nudie Cohn, ca. 1970-80. Courtesy MoMu - ModeMuseum Provincie Antwerpen, all rights reserved.

But it was when Nudie and his wife moved to Hollywood that their business and above all his exuberant designs took off. Convinced that performers needed something more flamboyant to wear, Nudie designed the first embellished jackets in 1947. As the story goes, he made it after convincing the young and far from famous country musician Tex Williams to buy him a sewing machine. He had his first suits worn by another country star, Lefty Frizzel and after him, the success followed. Elvis Presley, Elton John, Dolly Parton, Roy Rogers, Cher, Gram Parsons were just some of the celebrities who attended his ‘Nudie’s of Hollywood’ and later ‘Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors’ shops.

Hat, designed by Nudie Cohn, ca. 1970-80. Courtesy MoMu - ModeMuseum Provincie Antwerpen, all rights reserved.

Hat, designed by Nudie Cohn, ca. 1970-80. Courtesy MoMu - ModeMuseum Provincie Antwerpen, all rights reserved.

The activity run until 1994, with the help of Nudie’s wife and granddaughter after his death in 1984. A flamboyant character himself, the tailor used to drive customized promotional vehicles, Pontiacs decorated with the outrageous ornaments that he used to feature in his suits: bull’s horns, guns, saddles and silver dollar coins. Two of these cars have been collected by Belgian entertainer Bobbejaan Schoepen, who also owned a collections of suits and other garments by Cohn that has been put on show at MoMu in Antwerp from October 2011 to February 2012. The exhibition, curated by fashion historian Mari MacKenzie and designer R. Cerimagic, entitled ‘Dreamsuits. Designs by Nudie Cohn, the Rodeo Tailor’ was the first in Europe to explore the work of the tailor who embodied the style of the country music.

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