Clothes Make the Man – and Woman – in Country Music

Perception has always been integral to country music. From the very beginning with Fiddlin’ John Carson’s debut in Okeh Record’s “Old Familiar Tunes” catalog to Garth Brook’s record-breaking stadium tours, the way country music has been marketed to the public has relied heavily on its appearance. It’s been something the genre has taken with pride, shunned with disdain, or constantly parodied throughout its history.

Garth Brooks on stage wearing jeans, a purple button-down shirt (untucked), and a black cowboy hat.
This photograph was taken during Garth Brooks’ 2015 concert tour, and while Brooks is wearing fairly everyday clothes – jeans and a shirt – he is also sporting his trademark black cowboy hat. Photograph from Flickr; user: fatherspoon

One of the most common perceptions about country music is the idea of the stereotypical country singer as a “lonesome cowboy” singing in a smoke-filled honky tonk to beer-drinking, blue collar workers in nasal, piercing tones. However, in the early 20th century, country music catalogs were filled with images of overall-wearing “hillbillies” playing fiddle and banjo breakdowns for square dancers in plaid shirts and gingham dresses. In the 1920s, country music was marketed to a specific type of audience, though of course, that did not mean that this specific audience was the only one buying the records. These listeners were conceived as displaced ruralites who saw the rapidly changing landscape around them as too fast-paced and carried with them a nostalgia for earlier times, times when parlor songs and mountain reels dotted the backcountry of Appalachia.

Record companies, therefore, often encouraged their artists to “play up” their rural heritage and soon records by groups with homespun names like Al Hopkins and His Hillbillies, Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers, and Uncle Dave Macon and the Fruit Jar Drinkers started selling by the thousands. Some of the first entertainment outlets to notice this association with country music and a created image or persona were the radio “barn dance” programs that were growing in popularity in the late 1920s. Radio listeners quickly developed attachments to their favorite performers, and soon, fans were showing up in droves outside of studio air rooms to catch a glimpse of this new genre of radio star. To keep alive the illusion of a “Good-Natured Get Together,” George D. Hay – founder of the WSM Barn Dance in Nashville (soon to be renamed as the Grand Ole Opry ) – sent a memo to his performers of string bands and soloists to encourage them to wear work clothes and straw hats. And over time he renamed his “string orchestras” to more hillbilly titles such as Dr. Humphrey Bate and His Possum Hunters and Paul Womack and the Gully Jumpers. Soon, The Grand Ole Opry stage was dominated by “hoedown bands” and remained largely that way until the late 1930s.

Black-and-white image of Dr. Humphrey Bate and His Possum Hunters, 6 band members all dressed in country or rural-style clothes, including suspenders, floppy hats, and work pants.
Dr. Humphrey Bate and His Possum Hunters were the first group to play country music over Nashville’s airwaves in 1924. Here they are shown as Grand Ole Opry members, having adopted the “Rube” dress code by 1929. From www.alchetron.com

Meanwhile in Chicago, the WLS National Barn Dance had a brand-new star on its own barn dance show. Inspired by Jimmie Rodgers and western poets such as Jules Allen and Carl T. Sprauge, yodeler and guitarist Gene Autry was bringing the heroic idea of the American cowboy to audiences across the country. Clad in a 10-gallon Stetson hat and strumming a plaintive guitar, Autry soon brought Depression-era audiences to a frenzy with his move to Hollywood to become “America’s Singing Cowboy,” inspiring future generations of country musicians to don cowboy hats and western wear.

Soon, this image of a cowboy’s life was adopted by fellow WLS star Patsy Montana, bringing “girl singers,” as they were called, to the fore – and offering a new image, independent of Mountain Men and traditional gender roles, in the romanticized image of the cowgirl. Patsy’s long cowhide skirt and pushed back cowboy hat embodied her free and adventurous spirit, characterized by her anthem “I Want to Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart.” Overnight, female country performers dropped the gingham dress, “milk maid,” “pure mountain gal” personas for the exciting image of the American cowgirl.

Gene Autry with June Storey to the left and Patsy Montana to the right, all three wearing cowboy hats and cowboy/cowgirl outfits.
Gene Autry and Patsy Montana (right) grew from being Chicago radio stars on the WLS National Barn Dance to being among America’s top stars appearing in several motion pictures. They are seen here with June Storey in a Hollywood publicity still from the early 1940s. Chicago Tribune historical archive photograph

Among this new group of independent female performers was Rose Maddox, who, along with her brothers, pushed hillbilly and cowboy performance to new heights with their eccentric and electric performance style. The Maddox Brothers & Rose grew to prominence on the west coast in California in the immediate post-World War II era, and their proximity to Hollywood fashion designers lead to one of the clothing designs most associated with country music – the rhinestone western suit. Designers like Nathan Turk and Nudie Cohn had been creating wardrobes for western movie stars like Gene Autry and Tex Ritter for years, but the innovation of rhinestones and brash and bright colors insured the Maddox Brothers & Rose not only stood apart musically from other country and western bands in the nation, but now they could truly bill themselves as “America’s Most Colorful Hillbilly Band”! Soon performers such as Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, and Little Jimmy Dickens were knocking on Cohn’s door and “Nudie suits” became the most prominent form of country music stage attire of the mid-20th century.

The Rockin' Rollin' album cover for the Maddox Brothers & Rose shows all of the male band members in green, highly decorated suits and cowboy hats, with Rose in a matching cowgirl-style outfits covered in fringe and beadwork.
This album cover shows The Maddox Brothers & Rose in the late 1940s wearing matching highly-decorative outfits, accented by embroidery, fringe, and rhinestones, that were designed by tailor Nathan Turk.

Country music has always had an interesting way of presenting itself. From the mountaineer attire of the 1920s to the loud and bold Nudie suits of the 1950s – and all the other clothing-enhanced personas in between (think of Johnny Cash’s “The Man in Black” and Minnie Pearl, for instance) – country music has reflected elements of our own nation’s history: plaintive and nostalgic in the days of the Depression to excited and flashy in the post-war economic boom of the 1950s, and beyond. Perception has always played an important part in how the nation saw country music and how country musicians and record companies saw the nation. Country music and its attire has, and always will be, an important marker not only of who we are but the people who made us that way.

Bailey George is a DJ on Radio Bristol. He hosts The Honky Tonk Hit Parade every Wednesday from 3 to 5pm. Bailey plays the best in classic country, honky tonk, rockabilly, and all around good music for his listeners who he calls “The Greatest People in the World.”

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