Country Music's Underrated Influence on Men's Fashion
- Words Brenden Gallagher
- Date October 16, 2017
Mainstream fashion in country music these days is self-consciously uncool. Today’s country stars sing about the simple joys of wearing a white T-shirt and jeans and not giving a damn what people think about that. An analysis of the top 40 male country singer’s fashion yields a laundry list of regrettable choices. Rascal Flatts bleach blonde poofs, Florida George Line and Luke Bryan’s backwards hats, Kenny Chesney’s muscle tanks, Thomas Rhett’s faux hawk, a preponderance of regrettable facial hair across the board: very few modern country artists are free of sartorial sin.
This wasn’t always the case. There was a time when country musicians were the definition of cool, and they were setting trends that hip bohemians from San Francisco to the East Village would follow. Folks across the country saw the romance of the lonesome, open road in the style of country music’s troubadours. The impact of these style icons is still felt today, even if it isn’t represented on the country Billboard Charts. Today’s “Coachella,” “hipster” and “urban rustic” fashions are deeply influenced by musicians like Gram Parsons, Hank Williams and Willie Nelson. How did we get from the sartorial heights of the Nudie suit and the embroidered western shirt to depths of the backwards rhinestone trucker hat? Discussing the intersection between fashion and country music is complicated story, but it’s one that’s left an enduring imprint on American fashion.
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“He had cooler clothes than they did,” journalist Stanley Booth once wrote of Gram Parsons. “They” were The Rolling Stones. The immortal songwriter and one-time frontman of The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, was best known for his “Nudie suits:” custom garishly embroidered jackets that nodded to the days of old-timey country outfits that would play in matching crisp, colorful uniforms. The Nudie suit, named for Nashville tailor Nudie Cohn, is probably best remembered in its most over the top incarnation on Elvis Presley, but Cohn made many of the best remembered outfits worn by the likes of George Jones and Lefty Frizell. Cohn was producing suits as early as the 1940s, and even the great Hank Williams had one of Cohn’s suits.
Parsons added vintage denim and flannel familiar to the hippie generation to his Nudie suits and pearl buttoned shirts to create a timeless country style. In Parsons, traditional country style was fused with modern cool; counter culture fused with a sense of history. His custom Nudie suit famously features pot leaves and pills worked into the design. It was Parsons that took the look from an on-stage uniform to an essential piece of a broader, hip country look.
It wasn’t just the flashy suits that made Parsons’ style stand out. Bandanas tied around his neck, Western shirts, tight (often ripped) skinny jeans, vintage band tees: much of Parsons’ fashion still lives on in street style today. There are even pictures of Keith Richards and Parsons hanging out in Joshua Tree, next door to the Coachella Valley, wearing Western ponchos in the late ‘60s. Entire style subcultures today are largely based on Parsons’ personal style. Even more remarkable, Parsons had this lasting impact on fashion before he died at the age of twenty-six.
Parsons was the first major figure to bring together traditional country and blue-collar looks with the street style of the era but he wouldn’t be the last. Willie Nelson picked up where Parsons left off, also mixing street style looks with traditional country style. He sometimes wore a cowboy hat like many of his contemporaries, but he always wore his trademark headband underneath. Like Parsons, he wore plaid shirts, vintage tees, and hip jackets with cowboy boots and embroidered Western shirts.
In the ‘80s, Dwight Yoakum pioneered an updated, subdued take on Parsons’ style. He partnered with designer Miguel Cuevas (who apprenticed under Nudie) to make “California Jackets:” a more muted version of the Nudie Suit. Yoakum paired his signature jackets with a light colored cowboy hat, boots, and slim cut jeans. Johnny Cash also worked with Cuevas, drawing on the same traditional country inspirations to create his legendary “Man in Black” look.
The style of the dapper, old-school, fashionable country crooner faded away in the ‘80s. After the success of the film Urban Cowboy in 1980, embroidered western shirts, belt buckles, and boots had a massive fashion moment. The cultural saturation was so immediate and intense that by 1981, many in country music started to view the more stylish western designs as inauthentic. As Steve E. Well put it in his book Western Shirts: A Classic American Fashion, “When the Urban Cowboy fad ended in 1981, the core Western market reacted against flamboyant Western styling. Ironically, the Urban Cowboy, a highly stylized look, almost killed Western fashion.”
If you look at the country stars of the late ‘80s through the early 2000s, this anti-fashion thesis plays out. No one would accuse Garth Brooks or Alan Jackson of being fashion plates: both often took the stage in bland Sears-worthy outfits. As the culture wars of politics bled into pop culture, country musicians made a sport out looking like the “plain ol’ American boy next door.” By the turn of the twenty-first century, Toby Keith, Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney and their contemporaries were taking the stage in plain T-shirts and run-of-the-mill button-ups. The showmanship of country music had been replaced with a thirst for down-home, common man authenticity.
The tradition of Williams, Parsons, and their sartorial descendants lived on in the fashion world even if mainstream country artists took another direction. In the early ‘80s, Ralph Lauren’s Chaps brand took off. The rugged menswear line sought to incorporate western wear influences into mainstream fashion. In the early ‘90s, Lauren doubled down on this look, launching his RRL (sometimes styled “Double R L”) line. While Lauren grew up far from the plains, his affinity for country ranch life (and the aesthetics tied into that lifestyle) directly informed, not just RRL, but many future collections across his many sublabels. Lauren’s western wear roots extend back further than his explicitly country-fried line.
Lauren made it safe for big retail fashion names to dabble in western wear influences; he wasn’t the only designer to pick up the metaphorically cowboy mantle. Variants on the cowboy boot went in and out of fashion throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s—with western styles of the United States blending into the fashion whirlwind that was Britain’s Buffalo movement. Fringe jackets were a dominant trend in the ‘80s, and have had periodic resurgences ever since. The denim craze of recent years, often accompanied by a slim cut flannel or plaid shirt, and sometimes accented with boots and belt buckles comes straight from the outlaw country playbook.
This decade has seen a huge a resurgence of Western wear both in traditional looks and with the western-meets-hippie “Coachella” look. The “Coachella” look is an update on what Parsons and his lover Emmylou Harris wore when they hung out in the California desert, punctuated by “floppy hats...and fringe” and a poncho for the cold desert nights. Not only has this resurgence been a linchpin of street style in recent years, but many runway shows have run with the concept. While many shows would certainly fit the bill of “country-inspired” fashion, notable entries include grandoise Chanel’s Pre-Fall 2014 show. Gucci’s Fall/Winter 2015 collection (current creative director Alessandro Michele’s debut) added bandana and bolo tie vibes into the brand’s now ever-evolving blend of influences. Hedi Slimane’s recalled Gram Parson’s psychedelic, Californian cowboy vibes in a western-inflected Spring/Summer 2015 collection. When three separate European designers featured embroidered cowboy shirts in their Spring/Summer 2016 collections, T Magazine was quick to pick up on the trend.
Off the beaten path of big league designers, this contemporary interest in western wear looks has led to a national presence for boutique brands like Austin’s Fort Lonesome who specialize in custom embroidered cowboy shirts and denim pieces. Eric Adler’s menswear line fuses the tradition of Cuevas and Cohn with a more muted style in the tradition of Ralph Lauren to create clothing that pops. Adler and some other Nashville designers have made the city’s fashion week one worth watching.
As high fashion took a renewed interest in western wear, a new generation of country musicians have come around to the styles of their artistic forebears. Alt-country and indie artists like Jack White, Ryan Adams, and Wilco started drawing on Parsons and Cohn as style inspirations in the mid to late-2000s. The last few years have seen a crop of more independent country artists like Chris Stapleton, The Country Side of Harmonica Sam, and Daniel Romano adopting a more classic look on stage and on the street, returning with purpose to country’s musical and sartorial roots.
Country and Western style has come full circle in the last 50 years. As a new generation looks to find an authentic voice, they are finding new inspiration in the style of country music’s immortal voices. The style legacy of Gram Parsons, Hank Williams and Nudie Cohn lives on to inspire new generations of performers; if you’re looking to add some country western influences into your personal style, you’ll find it’s far more than a lonely desert road.