Nudie Cohn lived and breathed the American dream. After the Ukrainian Jewish refugee arrived in New York City in 1914 with pennies in his pocket, he worked his way up from a shoeshine boy to boxer to one of the most sought-after costume designers in American music history. His flamboyant, rhinestone-bedazzled, colorfully embroidered “Nudie suits” have been worn by celebrities across the spectrum of style: Elvis Presley, Hank Williams, Gram Parsons, John Wayne, Cher, Ronald Reagan, ZZ Top, Elton John, Porter Wagoner, Robert Mitchum, Glen Campbell and the Monkees.
“Nudie Cohn didn’t just seek to dress the stars—he wanted to be part of the Hollywood story,” says Ashley Kowalski, curator of collections at the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth. “He wanted his clothing and his name to be as iconic as the actors and musicians who wore them.”
Nuta Kotlyarenko was born to a Ukrainian Jewish family in Kyiv, in what was then the Russian Empire, in 1902, when ethnic Jews were regularly subjected to pogroms—violent, mob-like massacres officially mandated by the local Russian authorities. His father was a bootmaker, while his mother raised geese to send to market. She also ran a small concession stand at the local movie theater on Saturday afternoons. Little Nuta first encountered the Wild West there, when he wasn’t helping his mother sell candy and cigarettes, as he watched dazzling American cowboys ride their horses across the silver screen. His idol was Tom Mix, the star of almost 300 early Western films between 1909 and 1935.
In the early 1900s, pogroms across the Russian Empire killed thousands of Jews, and Nuta Kotlyarenko’s parents rightfully feared for their lives. In 1913, they decided to send 11-year-old Nuta and his brother Julius off on a ship bound for New York City. “His mama would always tell him the streets in the U.S. were lined with gold, and that’s where he needed to be,” says Jamie Nudie, Cohn’s granddaughter, 62, who also recalls the lullabies her grandfather sang to her in his native Ukrainian, to help her drift off to sleep. An estimated 100,000 Jewish people would eventually be killed, maimed or tortured in pogroms in newly independent Ukraine between 1918 and 1921.
Nuta Kotlyarenko Americanized his surname as Cohn, and family lore holds that when an intake clerk at Ellis Island misunderstood his first name, he suddenly became Nudie, a moniker that would stick with him throughout his life.
Cohn’s rags-to-riches story took him back and forth across the continent, and, like many such stories, it’s full of thrilling details that are tricky to confirm. First, he settled in Brooklyn, where he earned his living any way he could: shoeshine boy, errand runner for vaudeville star Eddie Cantor and, eventually, boxer. Weighing in at a skin-and-bones 106 pounds, the teenage Cohn had an obvious disadvantage in the ring, but the crowd loved his scrappy demeanor and strong will to survive. The boxing gig took him to Hollywood, where he found work as a negative cutter in film production. But Cohn soon learned he could find more success cutting fabric; he had already watched his older brother Julius find success as a brassiere maker. In 1922, he gathered enough money to open a small tailor and dry-cleaning shop in West Hollywood.
Then he fell in love with a young, aspiring starlet, who swept him so swiftly off his feet that he closed up shop and followed her back to New York City. When the stock market crashed soon after, Cohn left the big city and made his way to Mankato, Minnesota, where he rented a room in a boarding house and fell in love again, with the oldest daughter of the boarding house proprietor. Helen “Bobbie” Barbara Kruger and Cohn married in 1933 in Mankato; in 1934, they packed up and moved to New York City, where they opened Nudie’s for the Ladies, a costume shop that catered to strippers and showgirls with hand-embroidered G-strings and pasties, on 49th Street and Broadway. Cohn’s designs featured fringe and fanciful trims, gold and silver lamé, and his signature gems and rhinestones.
Cohn still felt the draw of the Wild West. Tired of the New York City rat race, after the birth of their daughter, Barbara, the young couple headed back to Minnesota, where they spent a year running a small tailor shop, before setting off westward once again. In 1940, they settled in Hollywood. From the garage of their home in the San Fernando Valley, with a ping pong table as a cutting table, Cohn began sewing up Western wear, using the magazine photos of his favorite Western stars that lined the walls as inspiration.
Bobbie Cohn hand-sewed costumes by her husband’s side, before moving on to manage the nuts and bolts of the business. She also inspired the brand’s early “naked cowgirl” label when she surprised Nudie by showing up in their bedroom one evening wearing nothing but a holster, cowboy hat and boots. “When are you going to make the rest of the outfit?” she asked. Nudie didn’t design the rest of her outfit; instead he created the titillating label, which depicts a naked cowgirl twirling a lasso. (In the early 1960s, Cohn would dress the label’s cowgirl in a fringed, cropped jacket and hot pants.)
He sought out rising country music star Tex Williams, finally found him mowing his lawn, and made an offer. Williams wanted glitzy suits but wasn’t quite a star and couldn’t afford custom costumes yet. The two struck a deal (and began a lifelong friendship). Williams sold a horse to fund Cohn’s first sewing machine, and the tailor made the singer’s stage suits at a price that fit his small costume budget. By 1947, Williams had become a singing advertisement for Cohn as he and his backing band, the Western Caravan, began drawing record crowds to the Riverside Rancho nightclub where they performed.
Soon Cohn was able to move out of his garage and into a new store, Nudie’s of Hollywood, by the corner of Victory Boulevard and Vineland Avenue in North Hollywood. He hired more tailors and embroiderers, bringing his team up to 15 employees, and purchased new machinery, including a rhinestone setter.
When sales soared in the 1960s, Cohn moved the business to a larger location at 5015 Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood and renamed it Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors.
Nudie suits weren’t just suits. They were spectacular statement pieces. Hand-embroidered with colorful, fantastical designs of Western motifs and studded with golden stars, rhinestones and sometimes silver dollars, his suits outfitted an imaginary, otherworldly, glamorous cowboy who lives solely in the cinema. Country stars of all sorts sought out his glitzy custom pieces: Gene Autry, Johnny Cash, John Wayne, Tammy Wynette.
But even stars who shone outside the country genre wanted Nudie suits of their own. Elton John wore a custom Nudie suit on the cover of his 1972 hit single “Rocket Man.” Keith Richards rocked a Roswell-themed Nudie suit with hovering UFOs. ZZ Top appear in Nudie suits on the cover of their 1975 album, Fandango.
A framed photograph of burlesque superstar Lili St. Cyr that once hung on Cohn’s office wall included a handwritten note, “To Nudie, If I ever wear clothes, they’ll be yours. Always, Lili St. Cyr.”
Perhaps most famous was the $10,000 gold lamé Nudie suit worn by Elvis Presley on the cover of his 1959 greatest hits album, 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong.
Roy Rogers was buried in his favorite Nudie suit.
Country musician Porter Wagoner was one of Cohn’s biggest customers, often shelling out anywhere from $11,000 to $18,000 (not adjusted for inflation) for custom suits. Wagoner owned 52 Nudie suits, including the fanciful powdered blue number embroidered with Conestoga wagons and Winchester rifles, which now lives in the Country Music Hall of Fame’s costume collection. “My impression of an entertainer is, he should wear a flashy outfit to be fair to the public,” Nudie told Rolling Stone in 1969. “He shouldn’t be wearing a sport coat like the people in the audience. The costume is the first impression, and it should be flashy. My costumes used to be called corny. Now they call us mod.”
Kowalski, of the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, adds: “The Nudie suit crossed over from country music to rock ’n’ roll performers and forever embedded itself as a cultural icon. Even today, the most fabulous Western wear includes rhinestones and builds on the flamboyant style made famous by Nudie.”
And though Nudie’s suits appear all-American, while visiting the Ukrainian National Museum in Chicago not long after taking in the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, I couldn’t help but think that they share some details characteristic of traditional Ukrainian vyshyvanka, or shirts and dresses decorated with ornate, colorful embroidery.
It was almost as if Cohn swapped intricately embroidered elements symbolic of Ukraine’s bounty—blades of wheat, bunches of grapes (Ukrainian wine production dates back to the 4th century B.C.E.) and crimson poppies (the flower is a symbol of the victory over Nazi Germany)—with motifs of the American West: bald eagles, cacti, Texas longhorn.
“Stitched into each beautiful vyshyvanka embroidered design is the history and soul of Ukraine,” says Maria Klimchak, curator of the Ukrainian National Museum, located in the heart of Chicago’s Ukrainian Village. “Skill in embroidery is said to be embedded into the genetic code of all Ukrainians.”
With origins dating back to the 10th-century Kievan Rus, vyshyvanka, which vary depending on the region of Ukraine where they are made, feature three central motifs: plants, animals and geometric shapes. “Vyshyvanka sent messages through their embroidered symbols,” Klimchak says. “For example, the flower symbolizes youth, freedom and love. The colors of the embroidery are equally significant. Red brings good luck; yellow, wealth; and white, calm.”
Though Cohn never referenced vyshyvanka as inspiration for his Nudie suits, I am not the only one to notice some similarity between the two.
In February 2022, Peter La Chapelle, a historian at Nevada State College and author of I'd Fight the World: A Political History of Old-Time, Hillbilly and Country Music, tweeted a photograph of the Ukrainian embroidery next to some photos of Nudie suits: “Just a reminder that country music tailor Nudie Cohn was born in Kyiv and was sent with his brother in 1913 to the U.S. during czarist pogroms against Jews. Embroidery on the vyshyvanka, the traditional Ukrainian shirt, resembles many of the designs he was associated with.”
La Chapelle tells me, “The connection between some of the rose and red floral designs often on white coming out of his [Nudie’s] shop and those you see sometimes on vyshyvanka really came to me a couple of years ago when an academic friend there, Leonid Davydenko, shared on Facebook an image of a Ukrainian politician dressed up as Darth Vader in the act of embroidering.”
Whether that was a conscious link for Cohn or not is hard to say, especially given the varied influences of his talented team of tailors and embroiderers. “Nudie was primarily known as a showman, a supervisor and someone who could serve as the ambassador to the many stars who came into his shop,” says La Chapelle. “Viola Grae, a talented seamstress, brought a Western vision to her amazing embroideries. Manuel Cuevas, now the senior patriarch of Nashville tailors, brought all kinds of Mexican and Indigenous elements. Rose Clements from England brought a European outlook with Swiss and chain stitching. And of course they borrowed a lot from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West exhibitions and other Eastern European Jewish cowboy tailors, such as Nathan Turk and Rodeo Ben. [Nudie suits] were always and truly composite works of the talented people he hired.”
Singer-songwriter Gram Parsons of the Flying Burrito Brothers sported one of Nudie’s most iconic custom American West-inspired designs: a jacket embroidered with marijuana leaves, poppies, pills, a Christian cross and a Joshua tree; Parsons would die in 1973 at age 26 of an overdose at the Joshua Tree Inn near California’s Joshua Tree National Park.
“Cohn belongs to those who have returned to their roots,” says Klimchak. “I think his father, who sewed shoes, inspired him. He inherited the family’s talent to create, decorate and surprise. He used something that has accumulated in Ukrainian Jewish traditions over the centuries.”
Nudie suits have long been a coveted collectible. Jerry Garcia’s skull-embroidered pants, designed by Cohn around 1973, recently sold at auction for $21,000, and several museums have the rhinestone garments in their collections. A royal-blue velvet Nudie suit with an embroidered sun making a puzzled expression, once worn by Chris Hillman of the Flying Burrito Brothers, is held by the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland holds a precious black Nudie Cohn-embroidered shirt worn onstage by Johnny Cash, circa 1970-1975, in its vault, and the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame showcases a saddle designed by Cohn for American country music singer Judy Lynn. The Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville houses an extensive collection of Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors signature costumes, including a circa 1950s wool gabardine laced-front shirt and split skirt embellished with smile pockets, arrowhead stitching and shotgun cuffs designed for Cindy Walker, one of country music’s first female professional songwriters, as well as Hank Williams’ most famous suit with its whimsical appliqués of musical notes all over and a guitar on the back.
Cohn died in 1984 at age 81, but suits inspired by his signature style are still worn by rock stars today. Rapper Post Malone wore a brilliant star-studded pink Nudie suit by designer Judith Rothman-Pierce to the Grammys in February 2019; Diplo wore a suit embroidered with mushrooms and lightning bolts to the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards; and Lil Nas X wore a Nudie-inspired bubblegum-pink suit, modernized with a pink mesh shirt and harness, to the 2020 Grammy Awards.
“While Nudie Cohn wasn’t the first Western-wear designer to popularize eye-popping colors and elaborate, chain-stitched embroidery, his rhinestone-studded Nudie suits reset the goal posts for what was possible and acceptable in flashy stage wear for country music performers,” says Mick Buck, curatorial director of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. “Cohn made one-of-a-kind, wearable works of art that helped define and refine the image of the stars who wore his creations, which could be as entertaining as the music. Nudie’s fearless and imaginative approach continues to appeal to new generations of singers, musicians and Western-wear designers. Judging by their reactions to the Nudie suits on exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, many of our visitors share that enthusiasm.”
Vyshyvanka are seeing a revival in present-day Ukraine, too.
“With the beginning of the full-scale invasion, when the interest in Ukraine and its culture received a new impetus, Ukrainian vyshyvanka again became a trend in the world fashion industry,” says Klimchak. “Today, embroidery is a symbol of modern Ukraine fighting to maintain its freedom. Many amulets, helmets and armaments given to the volunteer soldiers have elements of embroidery in them to protect the soldiers. And it is a great honor that the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, often wears vyshyvanka.”
For 30 years, Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors in North Hollywood enjoyed a steady stream of superstar customers. Two broncos served as beacons on the rooftop, and a life-size horse stood guard on the sidewalk in front of the shop.
Bobbie Cohn kept the business alive for 10 more years, but the store ultimately closed in 1994.
On Cohn’s death, actress, singer and songwriter Dale Evans, the third wife of singing cowboy Roy Rogers, one of Cohn’s closest friends, delivered the eulogy. He was buried in Hollywood’s Forest Lawn Memorial Park in one of his signature suits.
Despite his success, he usually wore mismatched boots, to remind himself of his humble origins in Eastern Europe when his family couldn’t even afford a matching pair of shoes for him.
“He always told me to be kind, stay humble, and never tell a lie,” says Jamie Nudie. “Not only was he my grandfather, but he was also my best friend. Anytime I was troubled, I would go to him. He always gave me the best advice.”
His adoring granddaughter says, “Despite the many hardships and failures he experienced early on in his life, he never stopped believing in the possibility of a better way. His motto was, ‘If you have a dream, you can realize it.’”