“Only he can pull off a pink diamond suit!” said someone on Twitter, weighing in the rhinestone-encrusted pink suit Post Malone wore to the Grammys in February. “Love that suit!” another user commented on his teal, snake-embroidered getup at the AMAs last October. “Only Post Malone could pull that off!” Looking at that same suit, another user weighed in: “Only Post Malone can look good in a suit like this and that’s the tea.”
The real tea is that Post Malone is far from the only person who can “pull this off”—in fact, he is only the latest in a long lineage. As several country and fashion fanatics will know (and have noted), the wardrobe of suits Post Malone has amassed over the past year is inspired by the work of the great rodeo tailor Nudie Cohn. He peppers these suits between other fantastically wacky coordinated outfits whose prints are like ~if you could see Xanax, bro~, which is fitting, because Post Malone’s music is like ~if you could hear Xanax, dog~. But unlike those zany getups, which seem to have sprung fully-formed from Post Malone’s ornately-tattooed head, the Nudie Suit is sacred, a holy relic among country fans, worn by icons from Gram Parsons to Elvis to Porter Wagoner. It’s romantic and campy and soulful—and now, seemingly, everywhere.
The story behind the Nudie Suit is a real American legend—heart-warming enough to be one of the only ones left worth believing in. Nuta Kotlyarenko escaped Kiev, landed in New York in the early 20th century, and rechristened himself “Nudie Cohn,” then moved to California, where he started making wild suits, embroidered with dogs, plants, feathers, garlands, instruments, insanely patriotic eagles, fellow imaginary cowboys, and other symbols conjured personally for each member of his country singer clientele. “But then my grandfather came up with this brilliant idea to add rhinestones,” says Jamie Lee Nudie, granddaughter of the man himself. “And from there it really took off.”
The ’50s and early ’60s were a boom for Western clothing, but Nudie’s were perhaps the most coveted, and Porter Wagoner, Roy Rogers, John Wayne, and Glen Campbell, among others, all sported Nudie designs, the ultimate in personal expression. Elvis Presley also became a Nudie customer, wearing a gold lamé suit on the cover of 1959’s 50,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong. And it was Nudie’s work that cemented the most iconic Presley image: the King, plump and regal behind his aviators, kneeling majestically behind a white silk cape in Las Vegas during the last few years of his life.
But specific and ostentatious as the Nudie Suit seems, it proved to be highly adaptable. In the late ’60s, the Florida trustafarian and Harvard drop-out Gram Parsons became a Nudie customer, buying a whole set for his entire band, the Flying Burrito Brothers. (It takes a lot of money to look that homegrown!) The crossover appeal of Parsons’s twang-meets-psychedelica music changed the perception of the suits, somehow, helping them break through. “My grandfather was a father figure to Gram,” Jamie explains. “My grandfather felt that was his son that he never had. So when that kind of took off, everyone was like, Well, who’s this Nudie guy? Everyone wanted a nudie suit.”
What seemed so deeply embedded in a particular style of music—simple and heartfelt songs, sung with a heart and a rose and four eagles and a marijuana leaf all embroidered on your sleeve—was suddenly open for interpretation. Elton John got one. David Lee Roth wore one. For years, REM bassist Mike Mills wore them almost exclusively.
And now—*country banjo record scratch*—Post Malone? Yes, the white-guy rapper, who basically has all the refinement of a Gasoline Alley Iced Tea at the Indianapolis 500.
But let’s back up for a minute, because the question of who wears and who makes Nudie Suits is rich and deep enough for the cheekiest and jangliest of Jenny Lewis hits—Jenny Lewis, of course, being another bearer of the Nudie legacy. Post Malone is only one of the personalities who have emerged to populate the new Nudie universe. In the years since Nudie died, in 1984, a number of designers have popped up who design in direct homage to the Nudie style, including Austin-based Kathie Sever’s Fort Lonesome; Indiana-based Jerry Atwood’s Union Western Wear; and Los Angeles’s Judith Rothman-Pierce’s RoseCut clothing.
For a time, these designers included the descendent herself: after her grandfather’s death, Jamie says, “I kept the store open for another 10 years, and [my grandmother] would always say, ‘Oh, one day your grandfather will be yesterday’s news.’ And I thought, not if I can help it!” She’s opened coffeeshops and a Nashville honky-tonk, has written a book about her grandfather, and maintains a lively website documenting the suit’s history. She is, in fact, appreciative of the new Nudies (newdies?): “There are so many designers out there who are just following what he had done,” she says. “It’s because everybody admired Nudie’s work, because it was one of a kind. It was over the top. It’s great. I’m happy to see—it never went away, it’s just under a different label now.”
It’s perhaps the only example in modern fashion in which designers work almost in devotion to an earlier artist; these lines aren’t merely nodding at, or taking inspiration from, Nudie, but operating out of open admiration and tribute. “The legacy of westernwear has been so powerful because back in Nudie’s day, he would make these outfits for these performers, and their performers would adopt that as their costume for the lifespan of a record, or a hit,” Sever says, explaining her attraction to the Nudie style. “And it was all tied together—it was the option that the clothing was sort of narrating the lyrics.”
“I definitely do everything with as much respect for Nudie and all of those rodeo tailors,” Rothman-Pierce says. “Their ideas and construction and execution is pretty much flawless.”
These designers and others have found a lot of fans for Nudie-style suits, from Lewis, who masterfully plays with Western archetypes in music and fashion, to Rae Srummerd’s Swae Lee, from Bill Murray and Matthew McConaughey to Dennis Quaid. Kacey Musgrave, another singer who winks at Western stereotypes, dresses her backup band in them.
After the devotee designers came the big guns. There was certainly overlap in the ’70s and ’80s, with bedazzle-obsessed designers like Bob Mackie. But now, brands like Gucci, Dior, and Saint Laurent are now directly referencing the Rhinestone Cowboy look, which handily combines the maximalism many designers gravitate towards in a post-Phoebe Philo-at-Céline world, and the yeehaw twang consumers (and rap fans!!!) seem to love right now.
Jamie points to Gucci’s recurring embroidered Western inspiration, as well as a rainbow eagle motif that seems to borrow from a well-known Nudie dress. “I think what they should have done is just come to me and say, let’s do a collaboration. And they’d get the nudie name and then they’d probably sell more quantities of it.” Those examples predate Gucci’s more formal collaborative (and/or licensing) process since it was accused of copying Dapper Dan in 2017. In its Spring/Summer 2018 collection, in which the brand announced they would design Elton John’s farewell tour costumes, there were a number of pieces openly produced in tribute to Bob Mackie, another John go-to for spangly getups.
The arena-level fandom is uncomfortable for other designers, as well. When you consider the Nudie Suit in the global narrative of fashion, it’s clearly one of America’s greatest contributions, period. And who gets to carry on the legacy, by making or wearing it, remains an unsettled question. “It’s been very weird as somebody who makes this stuff and has been making it for a long time to watch what that looks like in the world for real when things actually become popular,” Severs says. Jamie says that Ralph Lauren reached out to her to do a formal collaboration in 2015, and that was A-OK. It’s not really about profit or popularity--it’s about protecting a kind of untarnished sliver of Americana, and ensuring its meaning remains intact.
Is Malone, for example, a fitting torchbearer for a style that’s all about storytelling, that hopes fans will scream when they see a suit the way they do when they hear their old favorite hit? He never repeats his suits, for example, which any Parsons purist would tell you is a no-no. “I feel like the never repeating an outfit thing is part of hip-hop luxury style,” Rothman-Pierce says. If part of the Nudie’s original appeal was its adaptability, shouldn’t it be able to adapt to Post Malone? He’s from Texas, after all!
“It is this kind of American uniform to a certain extent, albeit ostentatiously dated,” Severs adds. “So it feels deeply comforting to that even though we struggle with politics and land management and all kinds of diversity issues, we are all able to agree that we like the way this style of dress looks.” She paused. “Or not all of us. But it’s been adopted by so many different parts of the culture.”