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Cowboy suits, Jews and Minnesota

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The rhinestone cowboy look got its start with Jewish immigrant and former Minnesotan

 By MAX SPARBER

If you grew up watching old Westerns, particularly those involving singing cowboys, you probably noticed their costumes. They were hard to miss, with bright colors, chain stitching and floral appliqués. But you probably didn’t know that they mostly originated with Jewish tailors, and that the most famous of them had a Minnesota connection.

Rockabilly singers Glen Glenn and Gary Lambert in shirts designed by Nudie Cohn. (Publicity still)

I speak of Nudie Cohn. He was a North Hollywood tailor who specialized in flamboyant Western wear, and, as a result, created a number of iconic outfits, including Elvis Presley’s gold lamé suit from the cover of 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong. Hank Williams’ musical note-emblazoned white suit, and the pot leaf and pill-illustrated jacket worn by Gram Parsons on the cover of The Gilded Palace of Sin.

Newsweek wrote about him for a syndicated column in 1971, and provided this memorable description of the man: “He looks … like the caricature of an American cowboy drawn by an enraged Russian cartoonist.” There’s a reason for this: Nudie was a Ukranian Jew, and so he didn’t have the sort of body or physiognomy you’d typically associate with a cowboy. He was squat, round and deeply eccentric: He wore mismatched shoes his entire life. He claimed that it was to remind himself of when he was too poor to buy matching shoes when he was young.

Nudie also had a flamboyant sense of showmanship, all in service of self-promotion. He wore his own suits. He drove around customs cars tricked out with horns from Texas steer and chrome horseshoes, with pistols mounted in place of door handles. His car horn played a recording of stampeding cattle.

It’s not clear when Nudie developed his interest in the world of cowboys. He was boxer in his youth on Pitkin Avenue in Brooklyn, and from here details get a little sketchy. At some point he wound up in a boarding house in Mankato, Minnesota, where he met Helen Kruger, better known as Bobbie, and they married. Either in Minneapolis or New York they opened Nudie’s for the Ladies, specializing in costumes for burlesque artists. In the 40s, they relocated to Hollywood, where Nudie apparently tried to get work in films and eventually started manufacturing custom Western gear, reportedly with a loan from country star Tex Williams, who was the first to wear what would become known as Nudie suits.

He wasn’t the first to make this sort of costume. The earliest custom tailors for Hollywood cowboys included “Rodeo” Ben Lichtenstein, who designed flashy but comfortable Western clothes for the rodeo circuit, and Nathan Turk, who added elaborate custom embroidery to cowboy shirts. Both men were from Europe, both were Jewish, and both incorporated Eastern European designs into their clothes; it is impossible to look at Turk’s shirts and not see patterns from folk costumes of Poland and Czechoslovakia.

But Nudie brought to all this a burlesque sensibility, making increased use of lamé fabrics and sequins, both of which are impractical for actual cowboying due to how easily they are damaged. Nudie was also likely the first to add rhinestones to his costumes, another element borrowed from showgirl costumes.

Bob Proehl talks about the appeal of Nudie suits in his book about the Flying Burrito Brothers, titled “The Gilded Palace of Sin” after their most famous album. While Rodeo Ben and Nathan Turk provided relatively elegant designs, Nudie’s work was “completely over the top … Nudie’s compositions were almost hallucinogenic. With imagery personalized to the performer and rhinestone’s encrusting the emroidery and often extending onto the fringe that trimmed sleeves, yokes, and bibs, the suits were amazing show pieces, performances unto themselves.”

(American Jewish World, 6.2.17)

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