Nudie Cohn: The rhinestone cowboy tailor who dressed Elvis

Story highlights

  • Rhinestone suits reinvented western wear
  • Outfits worn by singers, actors, riders
  • Granddaughter reopens store in California

(CNN)It was 1940s America, and the enduring image of a rugged horseman swaggering across the western plains was about to get a sparkling makeover.

"'Real men wear rhinestone' -- that's what he always used to say," Jamie Nudie, the granddaughter of tailor to the stars Nudie Cohn, remembers.
For more than four decades flamboyant designer Cohn, who died in 1984 aged 81, stitched his name into country and western clothing history. He dressed everyone from Ronald Reagan to John Wayne, and created the $10,000 gold lamé suit worn by Elvis Presley on the cover of his album "50,000 Elvis Fans Can't be Wrong."
    "He wanted to show that a western entertainer or a western horseman could be something out of the ordinary," says Nudie, who changed her last name in honor of her famous grandfather.
    "He thought: 'Why not put rhinestones on it? Why not add some embroidery? Why not make a themed suit out of embroidery?' And now it's something that's just part of our Americana culture," adds the businesswoman, who has now reopened Nudie's Rodeo Tailors in Santa Clarita, California, using many of her grandfather's original patterns.
    Cohn's fantastic, intricate designs weren't just coveted by country and western performers -- they also shone brightly among horse riders.
    "All of the girls in the pageants riding horses, they all wanted to sparkle, and he took it to another level and started rhinestoning saddles," Nudie explains.
    "Everything for the horse and rider -- from leather belts to boots."
    Humble beginnings

    Montie Montana's #NudieBoots

    A photo posted by Nudie's Rodeo Tailors (@nudies_rodeo_tailors) on

    And he had an unusual method for reminding himself, every day, of the hardships he had endured before finding success.
    "He was known for wearing unmatched boots, because when he was growing up in New York he had nothing -- he would find one shoe here, another shoe there," says Nudie.
    "And he always said that when he made it big, he would remember his humble beginnings by wearing unmatched boots."
    Famous friends
    Even as a young tailor's apprentice in New York, Cohn displayed a flair of his own and used it to create extravagant g-strings for the city's burlesque dancers.
    He would also spend hours watching American westerns, and when he and wife Bobbi moved to Los Angeles in the early 1940s he turned his attention to western suits.
    The couple launched Nudie's Rodeo Tailors from their garage. Within a decade they had a shop in North Hollywood, later attracting famous clients ranging from Dolly Parton to Elton John, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
    A big break came in the 1950s when western actor and singer Roy Rogers wore a spectacular Nudie suit for a show at Madison Square Gardens.

    Nudie and his friend #Cher. #nudiesuit #nudieboots

    A photo posted by Nudie's Rodeo Tailors (@nudies_rodeo_tailors) on

    "Roy told my grandfather: 'I've heard about you around town and what you're doing with these rhinestones... and I want that kid in the nosebleed section to be able to see me on stage,'" Nudie says.
    "My grandfather said: 'I'll make it happen.' And he put rhinestones on every piece of fringe that adorned the front of that shirt, and down the front of his pants."
    Larger than life
    The fantastically-dressed tailor became such a well-known local character that he was even made Honorary Sheriff of North Hollywood.
    "You'd come into the shop and my grandfather would be walking around playing the mandolin, singing songs," Nudie recalls.
    "Everybody wanted to hang around him, everybody wanted to shake his hand."
    They say that clothes make the man -- but in America, Nudie Cohn was the man who made the western suit.