Art Works Blog

Spotlight on the Art of Western Wear

Manuel Cuevas—rodeo tailor and 2018 NEA National Heritage Fellow—learned to sew when he was just seven years old. After an early start designing prom dresses in his native Mexico, in the early 1950s Cuevas moved to Hollywood, where he worked with leading designers such as rodeo tailor Nathan Turk. Eventually Cuevas became the lead tailor for Nudie Cohn, who was famous for dressing stars such as Elvis Presley, James Dean, and John Wayne. When Cuevas opened his own store in 1975, his client roster included Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Neil Young, among others. Cuevas is credited with designing Johnny Cash's "Man in Black" look and today the client list for Manuel Couture, which is now sited in Nashville, Tennessee, includes musicians known for their singular style, such as Jack White and Marty Stuart. Cuevas specializes in a style called Western Wear, which may look like an embellished version of simple cowboy wear, but actually takes it inspiration from a host of sources including Native American designs, Wild West shows, and even utilitarian denim. To learn more about the style, we spoke with Brenda Colladay, the vice president for museum services of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which holds several Manuel Couture pieces in its collection.

NEA: What does it mean when we talk about "Western wear?" What cultures and traditions influenced its development?

Brenda Colladay: Today when we speak of Western wear, we are generally speaking of a few signature tailoring details: yoked shirts and jackets, pearl snap closures, piping trim. Perhaps there is an embroidered design, or even fringe. We think of classic denim brands such as Wrangler and Levi’s. Of course, we think of cowboy boots and hats. It is a style that has gone in and out of vogue for the fashion world, but for some, it is the enduring classic look that defines a personal image and lifestyle. Like America, Western wear is a true melting pot of influences: Native American designs and materials such as buckskin leather; early show business costumery as found in travelling Wild West shows; utilitarian denim; the working uniforms of the Mexican vaqueros and then the American cowboys on the Western frontier; folk designs and decoration brought by immigrants from Russia, Poland, Mexico, and elsewhere. All of these went into the hybrid style known as “Western.”

NEA: How did the costumes of country and western performers evolve out of Western wear?

COLLADAY: The entrée into western wear for country music performers was through the popular cinematic “singing cowboys” of the Depression era and beyond. To many, this was an attractive and respectable way to don a stage costume that offered an alternative to the “hillbilly” identity that was prevalent in early commercial country music. However, it was an easier fit for some than others. For those coming from the West and Southwest, where there was a real cowboy culture, it felt familiar and authentic. But for some performers from the Southeast and Appalachia, it was not a natural fit.

Many extremely successful and popular country music artists never opted for the Western look. Roy Acuff, Eddy Arnold, and Red Foley never embraced the cowboy image. Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline each traded western-inspired stage wear for more mainstream suits and cocktail dresses.

Probably the first group to create an identity for themselves was the Maddox Brothers and Rose, who donned gorgeous, colorful, creative, matching Western-styled band uniforms designed by Nathan Turk. Rose and her brothers advertised themselves as the “most colorful Western & hillbilly band” in the land. The rhinestones and fringe, along with elaborate embroidered designs that depicted song lyrics, performers’ nicknames, etc. came onto the scene in the early 1950s. As the culture became even more visually oriented through the advent of television, the costumes became more eye-catching, as well.

NEA: Who are/were some of the notable trendsetters in terms of country and western costumes, and how did they set the style?

COLLADAY: Roy Rogers and Dale Evans brought rhinestones to the singing cowboy image. The Maddox Brothers and Rose used their colorful stage wear as a marketing tool. Webb Pierce used his custom stage wear as a way to celebrate his success, commissioning suits that reflected hit song titles, such as “In the Jailhouse Now” and “There Stands the Glass.” Others followed suit. Johnny Cash eschewed colorful stage wear, choosing to wear black as a signifier of his concern about social issues. Gram Parsons melded country and rock, not only in his music, but his Nudie suit featuring marijuana leaves, poppy flowers, nude women, and crosses. Porter Wagoner represented the image of country music stars with his multi-colored collection of Nudie and Manuel suits embroidered with covered wagons (to represent his name and the name of his band, The Wagonmasters) long after other country entertainers considered it to be dated, and opted for simple suits or jeans and starched shirts. But, then, neo-traditionalists Marty Stuart and Dwight Yoakam sought out the designers who had created the signature looks for previous generations, and made them fresh, hip, and cool again.

NEA: What do you think is the future of costumes when it comes to country-western performers? It seems like today we see everything from Kacey Musgrave's light-up "cowgirl" ensembles to the jeans and t-shirt ensembles of performers like Sam Hunt. 

COLLADAY: As always, today, there are performers who choose to align themselves (some as an homage to tradition and others, in a more playful or irreverent way) with the stage wear style of the past.  Others choose to dress onstage as they would offstage. It is a choice that an artist makes when determining what image they want to project. When you look back through country music history, you see that this has always been the case.  

NEA: Manuel Cuevas, as you know, has received an NEA National Heritage Fellowship in honor of his contributions as a maker of Western wear. Can you talk about his influence on the tradition?

COLLADAY: Manuel Cuevas provided a bridge from the first generation of performers who embraced flashy western-styled, to the next, and the next. His creations are valued as works of art as much as stage wear. Owning a Manuel suit has become a rite of passage and a symbol of success.  

Join us as we honor Manuel Cuevas and the other 2018 NEA National Heritage Fellows at a special concert tonight, Friday, September 28 at 8:00pm ET. Watch the live webcast on arts.gov

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