Hillbilly Deluxe
: Male Performance Dress and Authenticity in Country Music 1947 – 1992

  • Janet Aspley

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This thesis is an original study of embellished western tailoring, its role in the culture of country music and its relationship to changing constructs of Southern white masculinity in the Post-War era.

In this menswear idiom, which has come to be considered traditional for male performers of country music, the materials and construction values of bespoke tailoring combine with design details associated with the American West. Garments are rendered in jewel colours and embellished with pictorial embroidery and sparkling rhinestones.

Musicians in what was then ‘hillbilly music’ adopted cowboy attire in the late 1930s. By appropriating the glamour of Hollywood cinema’s singing cowboys, they distanced themselves from pejorative associations with rustic performance dress. My study traces the subsequent complex negotiation of dress and the authentic through close readings of garments within their specific historical and cultural context. Debates surrounding authenticity have been a focus for country music scholarship in a range of disciplines for the last several decades. The unique contribution of this thesis is to engage with these questions through the study of dress.

Embellished western tailoring evolved during the period under study from a vehicle for showmanship to a signifier of ‘authenticity’. I identify three nodal points in this development. The 1950s were the zenith of the style, when its highly decorative, feminised aspects were sanctioned by its role as performance wear. In the late 1960s, when the country music industry had abandoned the style in order to reach a wider audience, it was adopted by California-based musicians as a means to oppose the commerciality of mainstream country. In the mid-1980s, the style was revived by ‘neo-Traditionalists’, who wore it as an overtly expressed claim to ‘authenticity’.

The period under study was one of social upheaval in the American South, which resulted in changing constructs of racialized masculinity, class and regional identity. This thesis examines how embellished western tailoring reflected and helped to construct country music’s response to these changes. I employ close analysis of surviving garments, associated documents and performance practices. I conduct interviews and analyse the oral history testimony of makers and wearers.

The work of three tailors is investigated: Nathan Turk, Nudie Cohn and Manuel Cuevas. Each came to the USA as an immigrant and their designs reflect influence from a range of global cultures. This thesis argues that, although the tailors’ individual heritage placed them on the boundary of whiteness, they played a role in building the powerful mythology of the West, which through this style allied with the mythology of the South to produce a third imaginary space, ‘country’. My study is an interdisciplinary investigation of how this country imaginary can be traced through the material culture of embellished western wear.
Date of AwardMar 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Brighton
SupervisorPaul Jobling (Supervisor), Jonathan Watson (Supervisor) & Catherine Bergin (Supervisor)

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