Essay: Nudie

by Mark Simpson on 4 July 2003

Writer Mark Simpson explores the romantic legend of rodeo tailor Nudie and his rhinestone suits.

Writer Mark Simpson explores the romantic legend of rodeo tailor Nudie and his rhinestone suits.

Country singer Tammy Wynette in one of Nudie's customised cars

Oscar Wilde famously donned cowboy duds for the Western leg of his tour of the US in 1882, after discovering that his usual dandy garb didn't go down quite so well in the hard-bitten cattle and gold-rush towns as it had in the metropolitan East. Unfortunately for Oscar, Nudie wasn't around back then to run him up some of his inimitable, peerless, altogether aristocratic Western-style clothing.

Granted, couturing our Oscar in the manner that he did Hank Williams, Ricky Nelson and Elvis Presley might have cost Nudie a few score more rhinestones and a few miles more gold thread, but it would have presented no technical problem for him: after all, he also styled Cadillacs. And if Oscar had been given the Nudie makeover, he might have had a few more chart successes - and a better calibre of groupie than Stephen Fry.

Of course, Nudie was a late twentieth century not late nineteenth century phenomenon, but clearly there is a line of dreamy, romantic aestheticism which runs like a snagged glittery thread between them. It may have been Oscar Wilde who prefigured glam rock and David Bowie who personified it - but it was indubitably Nudie Cohen, the Jewish tailor émigré from Kiev, Russia, who stitched, seamed and patterned it. Whether or not, as legend has it, he was actually the first person to sew the rhinestone onto cloth, is somewhat beside the point. Not only do his mesmerising creations alchemise rhinestones into rubies and diamonds, making the notion of rhinestones as clothing his own, the other-worldly-yet-worldly nature of the workwear-turned-playwear clothes, hats and boots he made for country and western stars created a look which became the template of working class/hillbilly aspirationalism - the Cowboy Dandy, aka the Desert Knight, later known as the Rock Star: perhaps the most romantic and enduring figure of the twentieth century.

The Nudie-wearing dandy cowboy appropriates female glamour to himself: a peacock display that seems to be less of a mating call than an explosion of self-sufficient narcissism.

Nudie Cohen took the denim-clad mythology of a nineteenth century West which was already receding into nostalgia and immortalised it, literally turned it into gold, embroidering that dream into a walking mirage of down-home gorgeousness, laid-back sumptuousness. The 'tastelessness' of Nudie's creations is exquisite. Like great rock and roll it transcends taste; its bravura is the source of both its virility and androgyny. Perhaps as a reminder that in the Old West ladies were few and far between - and somewhat costly - the Nudie-wearing dandy cowboy appropriates female glamour to himself: a peacock display that seems to be less of a mating call than an explosion of self-sufficient narcissism.

Perhaps this is also why in Nudie, virility turns into fecundity: the desert after rain: impossibly bright and vital flowers, grass and spiders, webs heavy with dew, stars glistening promisingly, gazing down benignly - all underscored by the bitter-sweet, happy-sad sentimentality which is the melancholic heart of Country and Western. This is the romance within the romance of the cowboy: instead of Wilde's gutter, the real cowboy lies in the dirt, head on his stinking, steaming saddle, bathed in the rapidly chilling sweat of the day's ride, looking up at the stars and dreaming of a better life. Or maybe just a better shirt. And perhaps this dream-like quality is why Nudie's extraordinary cars reference not so much the horses of cowboys, as knights, chargers, or fantasy Spanish Galleons (the West, of course, was Spanish before it was American).

That $10,000 gold lame suit Nudie made for Colonel Tom Parker's golden boy, Elvis Rockin' Hillbilly Presley in 1957 was to become the ultimate fetish and relic of rock and roll, its Holy Grail and Turin Shroud woven into one. Over on this side of the Atlantic, its influence can still be felt, effectively defining the Seventies, coveted and referenced in their own stage apparel and gestures by Marc Bolan, Bowie, Bryan Ferry, and early (pre-Disney) Elton John. In the eighties and nineties, reflections of it could be detected in the gold lame shirts of glam rock devotee and Elvis fan Morrissey, England's last great rock/pop star, and considered by some to be Oscar Wilde, the deceased leader of the Aesthetic Movement reincarnated - albeit in a rather more 'aesthetic' body.

The legacy of Nudie is by no means secure, however. Fake downward mobility is now the order of the day, even Nudie Jeans, a brand which claims to be a 'homage' to the great Nudie Cohen, looks like the antithesis of Mr Cohen's aspirational romance. Their products are certainly more affordable, but democratisation has translated yet again into blandness and uniformity. Instead of emphasising the gap between dream and reality and affirming the dream, the Vegas glitter, we have the tedious fetishising/accessorising of 'authenticity'. Hip-hop without the Tiffany jewellery.

The gutter without the stars.




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