Hillbillies and Rockabillies and Nudie Cohn

As I work in a library and buy craft, costume, and photography books I get to see a lot of good stuff. I found these three books that seemed to have a relationship to each other so I thought I’d write a post bringing attention to them. They fit into a category covering a certain time period, the 50s and Rockabilly, along with music, spangly glittery clothing, 50s interior decoration, and vintage dressing.

So a few years ago I came across this book, Nudie: The Rodeo Taylor, all about Nudie CohnWhen spangly clothing is mentioned I think of Nudie. He designed all sorts of embroidered and pretty things for both men and women. 

Who would think that this fellow born Nuta in 1902 Kiev, Ukraine in 1902, would build an empire on the first glam suit, that came to be known as a Nudie Suit. As if that weren’t enough, he went on to design some outrageous automobiles.  His future wife went on to drive a steer-horned, silver dollar encrusted, rhinestone laden Cadillac.

It was while living in Russia that he picked up tailoring and sewing skills, when he became a tailor’s apprentice. Sent here by his Jewish parents to avoid Czarist Russia he ended up living in Minnesota. While the depression was going on he met and married Helen “Bobbie” Kruger, in 1934. Off they went to New York City and opened their first store, “Nudie’s for the Ladies”, where he made custom-made undergarments for showgirls.

Soon the two moved to California and opened “Nudie’s of Hollywood” where he sewed up a storm specializing in western wear. His heavy use of rhinestones and chain stitch embroidery brought western wear to a whole new level of flamboyancy. As his name got around with musicians his business grew and soon a new store opened, renamed Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors. His name became so well known, that in 1957 he designed a $10,000 gold lame number for a young musician named Elvis Presley.

From then on Nudie Cohn went on to design not just western wear for musicians but he entered the world of movies and designed some fabulous things for Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, John Wayne, John Lennon, Cher, and Elton John. “It seems Nudie’s creations made people happy and brought out the best in them.

Between 1950 and 1975 he designed automobiles that took on the same studded look as his clothes did. Mounted with steer horn hood ornaments studded doors and gear shifts his cars became collector’s items as have his clothes. He died in 1984 and his shop was run by his granddaughter until it finally closed in 1994.

Only one book has been written about Nudie Cohn and you can find it here at the Central Library. 

Articles written about Nudie Cohn.

New York Times: A Rhinestone Cowboy Who Grabbed Cars by the Horns

The Selvedge Yard: The Rhinestone Cowboy

Next is Hillbilly Hollywood: The Origins of Country Western Style. As we are talking western wear and western style of course this book is full of Nudie clothes and Nudie look alikes.

In 1955 a show called Ranch Style appeared featuring Los Angeles country and western music stars. Sometimes the show included newcomers like Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline. Until recent years this was the best years for county music in Hollywood. 

The musicians were featured in their country finest full of western tailored suits snazzed up with embroidery and sequins. It was gaudy and elegant at the same time. It was country and honky-tonk and Hollywood all coming together in a larger than life showing. These were the first fancy cowboys to sport embroidery, spangles, and glitter and this sort of flamboyancy continues until today in country music.

The last book is called The Rockabillies, where photographer Jennifer Greenburg takes us into the world of Rockabilly subculture. Rockabillies live the 1950s life in modern times through their dress and what they surround themselves with. Although they are far removed time wise from the original Rockabillies of the 1950s, this group has adopted the look of of mid-twentieth century American youth culture with pompadours, Betty Page bangs, full skirts and petticoats and listens to the music of Carl Perkins and today’s Paladins.

Those living the Rockabilly life surround themselves with the enjoyable happy parts of the 1950s, burlesque, pinup girls, pretty clothes and hair, hot rods, and again the music. They embrace the aesthetic values of teens in the 1950s but choose to ignore the parts that weren’t so good, ignoring social and political unrest, race riots, and little hope for middle-class advancement. Given a chance most would probably not choose to live in that era, as with most sub-cultures it is amusing to emulate a time period but to actually live with that time period’s problems is not something many would not want to do. Like most sub-culture groups, they are part of a tight knit group and can immediately identify another who is a part of their culture much like any sub-culture such as Goths.

Through her photographs, Greenburg brings light to this unusual subculture and investigates its contradictory relationship to the American past. Greenburg photographs the Rockabilly culture see how they bring their culture into their homes. You won’t find mass produced Walmart furniture in their homes but you will see mid-century modern, Predicta television sets, kitschy collectibles, Tiki, bark cloth drapes, and 1950s automobiles.

Greenburg celebrates this community of people who have built their lives around mid-century values and decor.

Crafting Modernism: Midcentury American Art and Design

Memorial Art Gallery, Rochester, New York
February 26–May 20, 2012 in the Grand Gallery

What is Mid-Century Modern? After WWII, from about the mid 1940s through the mid 1960s America saw a flourish in modern design. Mid-Century Modern was seen in furniture, crafts, graphic design, ceramics, and architecture. The movement was and is particularly important in Western NY with the School of Ceramics at Alfred and RIT’s School for American Crafts. Two important artists of this movement are from western New York, Wendell Castle and Albert Paley.

Mid-Century artists were interested in using organic forms and were influenced by Scandinavian and Brazilian architects who incorporated clean lines integrated with nature. As these architects were influencing many of the homes being during this time period, the time period also saw a mass production of household goods, from furniture to clocks. The reason being was chief designers during this period (Ray and Charles Eames being among them) wanted their items to be affordable to the average homeowner instead of the wealthy. Ray and Charles Eames were pioneers in mass produced furniture, their Eames chair is highly collectible.  Other Mid-Century artists included, Harry Bertoia, Marcel Breuer, Richard  Neutra, Ludwig Mies, van der Rohe, and Isamu Noguchi. For more inforamtion on Mid-Century Modern see these sites:

The Mid-Century Modernist

Mid-Centry Modern

You can see the show at the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, New York.

Pictured at top of page (from left):
Evert Sodergren, Sculptured Chair (1953). Walnut and leather. Collection of Margaret Minnick.
Claire Falkenstein, Pendant (1961). Glass, iron. The Dukoff Collection.
Isamu Noguchi, Akari 820 Lamp (1951–52). Mino washi paper, bamboo, metal and electric cord. Noguchi Museum.