Flash and Dazzle! Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors’ Archive
Part of a series: Diamonds In The Rough
Through a grant-funded project awarded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), the Autry sets out to process approximately 2,000 linear feet of archival material over the next two years. Every third week of the month, the Autry Libraries blog will feature collection gems brought to light by NHPRC Processing Archivist Holly Rose Larson.
Nudie Cohn (December 15, 1902–May 9, 1984) was a poor Russian immigrant who became one of the most famous and successful American Western wear designers of the twentieth century. Born Nuta (pronounced Noot-yah) Kotlyrenko to a Jewish boot maker and his wife in Kiev, Nuta was a tailor’s apprentice by age eight. At age eleven he was sent to America with his older brother to take up residence with relatives in Brooklyn, New York. At Ellis Island, his first name was misunderstood by immigration officers as “Nudie,” and the two brothers gave Cohn as their surname, to match their relatives in Brooklyn; thus Nudie Cohn was born.
Nudie tried his hand at many vocations, but the majority of his successful ventures were in tailoring. As a young man, he bounced between Los Angeles and New York City, and on one of these trips met his wife, Helen Barbara Kruger, in Minnesota. He nicknamed her “Bobbie,” and they married on September 4, 1933.
In New York City they opened Nudie’s for the Ladies, a boutique near Times Square that catered to burlesque dancers. It was here that Nudie started exploring the use of rhinestones and fanciful costumes. The couple returned to Minnesota in 1936, then moved with their two-year-old daughter Barbara to Los Angeles in 1940.
After a few false starts, Nudie and Bobbie eventually opened their own custom boot and Western wear shop in North Hollywood in 1963. Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors and Western Equipment on Lankershim Boulevard—complete with a horse statue out front—became a landmark in the San Fernando Valley. The workshop employed Manuel Cuevas, a top name in today’s Western couture world, shirt and pants maker Jaime Castaneda, who is still in the tailoring business in North Hollywood, and master embroiderers Viola Grae and Rose Clements.
Nudie is famous for outfitting Roy Rogers in rhinestone-studded fringe, creating the gold lamé suit Elvis wore in 1957, and the light-up suit donned by Robert Redford in The Electric Horseman. Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors’ clientele list is impressive, boasting such stars as Rex Allen, Gene Autry, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Pee Wee King, Dolly Parton, John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Janis Joplin, Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, and John Wayne. Nudie was also known for his cars, including a 1950 Hudson, which were embellished with steer horns and silver dollars, and for wearing mismatched boots—a nod, he says, to his impoverished childhood, when the only pair of shoes he had was mismatched hand-me-downs. Although Nudie never met with success as a musician, he also recorded and released his own album, Nudie and His Mandolin, in 1975.
Nudie retired from Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors in the early 1980s, but his wife Bobbie and their granddaughter Jamie kept the business running until 1995. Nudie’s creations are celebrated today by museums, collectors, and fans of his clothing. Permanent exhibitions at institutions such as the Autry National Center, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, the Opryland Museum, and the Smithsonian Institution include pieces by Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors. Nudie’s designs are sought after as collector’s items and are still worn on stage by such performers as Beck and Emmylou Harris.
The Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors and Western Equipment Archives were donated to the Autry National Center in 1994. These records document the business’s activities from 1950 through the early 1990s. Documents include boot patterns and boot records and extensive customer clothing files. Many of Nudie’s custom clothes and boots have also been added to the Autry National Center’s collection.
The Customer Clothing Files for Individuals section, which represents the bulk of the collection, often contains actual fabric swatches as well as drawings of individual items of clothing that Nudie was asked to design. Customers on file in the Autry’s Nudie’s Archives include Gene Autry, Cher and Sonny Bono, David Byrne, James Caan, Johnny Cash, Dick Clark, James Coburn, Tony Curtis, Cutter Bill, John Denver, Bob Dylan, Clint Eastwood, Chris Ethridge, Jerry Garcia, Elliot Gould, Merv Griffin, Gene Hackman, George Harrison, Chris Hillman, David Hockney, Mick Jagger, Janis Joplin, Pee Wee King, Louis L’Amour, k. d. lang, Lash LaRue, Cloris Leachman, John Lennon, Gordon Lightfoot, Audie Murphy, Mike Nesmith, Harry Nilsson, Nick Nolte, Phil Ochs, Graham Parsons, Dolly Parton, Bill Paxton, Slim Pickens, Elvis Presley, Robert Redford, and Porter Wagoner. Studio accounts include CBS, Columbia Pictures Corporation, Disneyland/Walt Disney Prod., KTLA TV, MGM, NBC, Paramount Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Universal Studios, Viacom, Warner Brothers, and Western Costume.
Sometime this summer, the museum will unveil a case in the Imagination Gallery that explores the legacy of Nudie the Rodeo Tailor and the Nudie Archive housed at the Autry. The case will feature artifacts related to country-western singer Porter Wagoner, one of Nudie’s best and most visible clients. The research and production of this exhibit is helped by the finding aid created for this collection under the NHPRC grant.
Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors was also frequented by every day folks, as I learned from co-workers as I processed this collection. Our Exhibitions Project Manager Andi Alameda shared her story with me of visiting Nudie’s shop—where everyone in the county went for the best moccasins in the late 1960s. If you have memories of Nudie, please share them in the comments section below!