I recently saw Luther Wright (and his band The Wrongs) at the Cameron House in Toronto. He was wearing the jacket from The Octopus Suit.
I met Luther a few years back at Lee’s Palace when his former band Weeping Tile was playing a rare reunion show for a book launch benefit. I had previously admired Luther and The Wrongs’ bluegrass version of The Wall when it was a Big Hit. I’d just gotten an old chainstitch embroidery machine and wanted to try making a Nudie-Style suit.
More traditional country music themes that seemed appropriate just weren’t working. Looking at pictures of old Japanese textiles, I saw one with a big orange octopus, had an idea, and then found more inspiration in other works like this:
And then, in the history of octopi as a symbol of protest, and pictures of real ones:
At the Cameron, Luther and the band were previewing their new CD, Hearts and Lonely Hunters. He kindly included Wendy Suitmaker (that’s me) in the credits. The jacket looked great on the back room stage, with a robin’s egg blue snap shirt. The Octopus is always a big topic of conversation, along with some old time country music chat with Burke Carroll, the Wrongs’ most excellent steel player.
The new topic this time was my allergies. Since I won’t be making suits anymore, I thought I’d do a blog about some of them here. It all began with a little obsession over the embroidered suits and clothes made famous by Rodeo Ben, Nathan Turk, Nudie Cohen, and the people who wore them.
I had done quite a few tailored jackets before being able to spend some time working with a true Italian master tailor, Alphonso Preziosi, who was at the former Walter Beauchamp’s shop in Toronto for many decades. Alphonso started training in Italy at 8 years old. I learned to properly hand tailor a jacket from him.
Luther sent his friend Rusty Ford (aka Astute Political Writer Mitch Anderson) my way when he embarked on a career as a county singer.
There’s some recall of Hank Williams country fans can see here, however, if you want to know exactly how the design came to be, you’ll have to ask Rusty, whose mom is legendary, formidable, incredible Canadian feminist organizer Doris Anderson.
He wore it while paying tribute to another Canadian legend, Stompin’ Tom Connors, at Vancouver City Hall, and has it on at every one of his shows. Rusty and that suit go together.
The suitmaking then brought Stompin’ Tom’s friend and longtime lead guitarist Al Widemeyer to my studio in Kitchener. I did up this blazer for him.
Kitchener is a bit of a country music town. Local musician Steve Parkinson, who I’d first seen in Toronto years before rockin’ with his band The Machines, also ended up at my studio, getting a suit for his country turn with The Stoney Lonesome.
Welland country crooner Daniel Romano emailed, looking for the full Nudie treatment. We picked an open front jacket with a pointy collar design right off Nudie’s back. The tobacco coloured gabardine was beautiful to work with, old stock fabric with the ideal short fibre wool for embroidering on.
Globe and Mail photographer Moe Doiron took this beautiful picture in the old Crow’s Nest Barbershop beneath King of Kensington Vintage in Kensington Market.
I made another suit with the same pattern in blue gabardine, taking the holster pockets from a Turk design from the 1950s, and the flower shape from a Gene Autry Rodeo Ben shirt from the 30s.
Next, Daniel sent bona fide suit-wearer Dallas Good from The Sadies, who I had seen play many times. One of their signatures is The Louvin Brothers’ There’s A Higher Power. He knew just what he wanted. Satan. Big.
This jacket could not be any better. Inverted crosses made in piping on the front, and the rhinestone-ed embroidered 666 and pentagram.
Inspired by Dallas’s Satan, Hamilton musician Dan Edmonds wanted to bring a western jacket he got from Katy K in Nashville in for some embellishing. I covered it with his idea for thirsty flowers and herb leaves, with hands praying for rain.
By then I was in Guelph, and the allergies had set in. I didn’t yet know the cause. I did the whole thing wearing gloves. It was the last jacket I embroidered. The front flowers are oleanders.
From the beginning, with Luther’s Octopus, the suits always had an element of ukiyo-e, “pictures of the floating world” Japanese style popular from the 17th to 19th centuries. There is a direct lineage to Native American designs in most American embroidery called “westernwear”, but my favorite embroidered suit of all, Hank Snow’s Pink Frog Suit, that he’s wearing in the photo above, taken backstage at the Grand Old Opry in the 1970s, seems to come from somewhere else. A sparkling, secret world of nature, and colour, and music.
by Wendy Rofihe, December, 2015