Marty Stuart, clothing designer Manuel and music writer and western costume historian Holly George-Warren were met by a near-capacity crowd recently in the auditorium of the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville. When it comes to discussing how costumes help define an entertainer’s image, these are three of the authorities.
The event was held in conjunction with an ongoing exhibit at the Frist, Manuel: Star-Spangled Couture, which continues through May 22.
George-Warren, author of the book How the West Was Worn and a forthcoming biography of Gene Autry, accompanied her talk with a brief, slide-illustrated history of cowboy costumes in movies and popular music. She credited Buffalo Bill Cody — and his hugely popular Wild West shows from the l880s to the early 1900s — with setting the trend of cowboys in fancy dress.
Such costuming “really flourished,” she said, with the advent of the movies. Early cowboy star Tom Mix wore some “really wild outfits,” she continued, which he made himself. The first tailor to specialize in western costumes was Rodeo Ben, based in Philadelphia, who started his business in the 1920s. Autry was his most famous client. His costumes, George-Warren explained, offered individualized colors and motifs for clients instead of just a generic western look. She said Rodeo Ben would travel to where potential clients were, such as rodeo sites, to solicit business.
The ornate clothing became such a staple of cowboy movies, George-Warren said, that real cowboys who sought roles as secondary characters or extras had to buy the expensive duds. “It was a case of life imitating art imitating life,” she observed.
The most notable cowboy tailors of the time were Jews from eastern Europe who routinely incorporated designs from their native countries. Nathan Turk, based in Van Nuys, Calif., succeeded Rodeo Ben as the costumer of choice. He, in turn, was followed by Ukrainian-born Nudie Cohn (aka Nudie the Rodeo Tailor). Cohn set up shop on Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood. In the late 1940s, his cowboy costumes began to find favor among certain country stars. One of Nudie’s most promising assistant tailors was Manuel (full name Manuel Arturo Jose Cuevas Martinez), a native of Mexico who joined the master in the 1950s.
Nudie further individualized his outfits by working in designs that alluded to the artist’s name or hit records — such as a husky dog on Ferlin Husky togs and an embroidered image of a jail for Webb Pierce after Pierce hit with “In the Jailhouse Now.”
When the cowboy-clothing craze swept into country music in the 1940s, George-Warren said, Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry resisted the trend, preferring that performers dress in hillbilly costumes such as bib overalls. Ultimately, though, Hollywood prevailed as such stars as Wisconsin-born Pee Wee King, Alabama-born Hank Williams and West Virginia-born Little Jimmy Dickens adopted the West Coast look. George-Warren noted that Williams wore a Nudie outfit when he and his band appeared on Kate Smith’s popular network television show.
George-Warren said Gram Parsons helped introduce the Nudie look to rock ‘n’ roll performers (although it was Manuel who designed Parson’s costumes, an example of which is on display in the Frist exhibit). She said the trio Riders in the Sky played a key role in returning the western look to country music and that Dwight Yoakam further elevated the style.
Stuart followed George-Warren to the lectern. Referring to the recent death of former Tonight Show host Johnny Carson, Stuart told about appearing on the show shortly after he joined Johnny Cash’s band.
“Here I am working for the coolest guy on the planet,” he said. But then something went awry. “Johnny Cash got a little full of himself,” Stuart continued, “and decided he was going to design the band’s costumes.” What he came up with were black tuxedo jackets that were essentially vests. Clad thus, the band was in an elevator at NBC on its way to the show when Carson stepped in. “He looked us up and down,” Stuart recalled, “and said, ‘Couldn’t you guys afford the sleeves?'”
Expounding on the importance of image to performers, Stuart said his fondest memories were of watching country music TV shows with his dad — shows that starred such fancy dressers as Porter Wagoner, the Wilburn Brothers and Flatt & Scruggs. (A musical prodigy, Stuart was only 13 when he joined Lester Flatt’s bluegrass band.)
In 1967, Stuart said, Ernest Tubb and the Texas Troubadours came to his hometown in Mississippi, arriving in Tubb’s famed “Green Hornet” tour bus, “the most magnificent rolling billboard you’ve ever seen.” Stuart said that the band members walked off the bus wearing pink suits with Tubb following in a snappy pin-striped western suit with piping.
“It was the most glorious sight I have ever seen in my life,” Stuart marveled. “I saw Jesus that night.”
Later, when Stuart began playing the Grand Ole Opry with Flatt, he said he noticed that “Porter [Wagoner] and Dolly [Parton] would just electrify the stage with their presence.” The young singer made his first pilgrimage to Hollywood and Nudie’s in 1974. He said he’d saved up $250 and was intent on buying an outfit. When he tried on a jacket that he liked, Nudie calmly informed him it that it cost $2500. Then Manuel stepped in. “He said,” Stuart remembered, “‘Someday, you will walk in here and buy the whole store. But today you get a free shirt.”
Stuart likened Manuel’s artistic imagination to that of Picasso and Dali. He noted that the designer is gentle, but firm, in guiding his clients in the right fashion direction. Stuart said Manuel once told an aging star who kept asking for more youthful duds than her body could bear, “Darling, I have known you since you were a princess. Now I think you should be a queen.”
Although Stuart never bought Nudie’s store, he did begin wearing and collecting its products.
“When I started making some paychecks,” he said, “I didn’t invest in stocks and bonds — I invested in American culture.”
Such passion has not always served him well, he admitted. He related that the head of his record label once called him on the carpet and dressed him down for dressing up. “He said I looked like a clown. I said, ‘I know I look like a clown, but there’s a reason for that. It’s called wearable art.'”
Manuel, who moved his operations to Nashville in 1989, was the final speaker. Clad in a pinstriped suit and black vest, he began by asserting that the human impulse to dress up can be traced back to wanting “to look good for your family.” Explaining that performers have a greater obligation, he continued, “In order to sell you a ticket, they really should have something to show that [they] are a star.”
The designer said he once explained the importance of image by asking a client to imagine that he is in a train station, all the waiting-room seats are filled, and a nun walks in. Somebody, he said, is going to get up and give her a seat. “But,” he asked, “how do you know she’s a nun? She could be a pickpocket or worse.” This, he said, exemplifies the importance of image.
“Imaging,” he concluded, “is going to help [artists] enter the galaxy of stars — like me tonight. I got to close the show. They [pointing to Stuart and George-Warren] opened for me.”
In remarks following the presentations, Manuel told about creating the costume that adorned the cover of Yoakam’s 1987 album, Hillbilly Deluxe. He said it generated “thousands of calls” to his shop.
Stuart contended that a great outfit can sometimes smooth over a lack of talent. He said he recently watched a young artist struggle through a bad performance on the Opry. When he asked his wife and fellow Opry star, Connie Smith, what she thought of the vocal debacle, she replied, “I think that’s what they made rhinestones for.”
Stuart then gave another example of the inspirational impact of image. Years ago, he said, “My record had tanked and my career was shot.” Immersed in dark thoughts, he had halted his jeep at a stoplight in Nashville when a canary-yellow Cadillac with a red-leather interior pulled up beside him. He looked over and saw a Nudie suit that nearly blinded him and the “sharpest-toed cowboy boots I’d ever seen.” The wearer of this radiant finery was none other than Country Music Hall of Famer Merle Travis.
“How ya doin’?” Travis inquired politely.
“Not as well as you,” Stuart replied.
“I didn’t think so,” Travis agreed and sped off.
“But I felt better,” Stuart recalled, “just seeing him [dressed] like that.”
Turning to Manuel, Stuart remarked that since all the designer’s competitors are dead, he is now in a position to take credit for anything he wants. “So,” he asked, “did you really hand-stitch the Shroud of Turin?”