Janet Aspley has written for County Music People for a number of years as well as running her bespoke western wear shirt company Dandy & Rose. Lonesome Highway is a fan of her work and writing and took the opportunity to ask her about her influences and history.
Which came first for you the music or the fashion aspect of country music?
It’s hard to put a timeline on something that is as core as either my love of music or my love of clothes. They have always gone side by side, and country music has always been around for me. I grew up in the Midlands. My parents loved Hollywood musicals and we all ballroom danced, so there was all that music around and I love it to this day. But a big childhood influence were my Dad’s Johnny Cash and Marty Robbins albums. He had the two Gunfighter Ballads albums and he would sit patiently with me copying out the lyrics so I could learn them by heart. I was entranced by the stories. Then I have two older brothers and one of them is a huge Everly Brothers fan, so I guess I absorbed that. And meanwhile, my Mum was sewing away, making all the wedding dresses in the family, and all my ballroom dancing dresses – with rhinestones stuck on! She had learnt to sew from her mother-in-law, who trained as a tailor in Dorchester just before the First World War. So that’s very much part of my heritage.
I came back to country music through Elvis Costello. After King of America came out in 1986, I started exploring country music and discovered George Jones and Patsy Cline, and of course Hank Williams. Then, like you, I discovered Dwight Yoakam, just by reading a review in the London Evening Standard and going out to buy Guitars, Cadillacs, etc. etc. It was quite natural to me to notice what he was wearing. I mean, who wouldn’t?! I didn’t think twice about it. I started experimenting with making western shirts and jackets for myself and wearing them to gigs. It was a great time, that New Traditionalist era – everyone came to London, Randy Travis, George Strait, The Judds, Reba. I remember an outfit with fake ponyskin and fringing that I made and wore. It’s in the loft, actually… and that’s where it will stay!
By then I had started writing for Country Music People magazine. I was always getting told off for writing about what people were wearing and for ‘dressing up’. I was the only woman writer, and I think it was considered a ‘girl’ thing. The current editor, Duncan Warwick, loves western wear so I don’t have that trouble these days!
Do you think the clothes played a part in creating the image of the traditional country singers?
I think that originally they were all about dressing like a star, feeling like a star. I interviewed Mel Tillis recently and that’s what he said to me – “You felt like a star and you wore ‘em proudly!” And of course they used them for branding – they had pictures embroidered that represented their name, or a hit song title. If you made it in country music, you didn’t go to some fancy New York tailor and ask him to make you look understated or cool, you asked Nudie to make you sparkle for the benefit of your audience, to show you were still one of them at heart. Then in the 1960s when The Nashville sound came in and a lot of stars like Ray Price switched to street clothes, rhinestones very quickly became associated with hard country. That’s when they started to be ‘real’ country singers’ clothes. Hence the revival in the mid 1980s – it’s about authenticity.
Where do you place the rhinestone encrusted clothing in your love of the genre?
It just fascinates me and I’m interested in understanding what it means in the history of the country music. It’s such a rich subject. I’m a historian. I read History at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge and then, after a career in Human Resources, an interview that I did for Country Music Peoplewith Manuel inspired me to go back to academic study, so that I could look at the subject more closely. I did an MA in History of Design at University of Brighton and wrote my dissertation about ‘Male Dress and the Performance of Country Music’. I’ve been lucky enough to be funded to follow that up with a full time PhD focusing specifically on rhinestone tailoring. It’s hard work but my love of country music keeps me going. I discover new music all the time – well, new old music, new to me. It’s such a privilege to be able to talk to someone like Mel Tillis, who has had such a great career. And then, the first time I looked at a garment in The Country Music Hall of Fame archive, the curator took the lid off the box, and it was one of Dwight’s. I had trouble suppressing a girly scream! And Jim Lauderdale has been such a help and support – I’ve been a big fan of his since I first heard him in the early 90s, so it’s great to work with him. The PhD project just brings together all the best things about me – writing, my passionate interest in country music and my deep connection to clothes and sewing.
The names of Nudie, Nathan Turk, Rodeo Ben of old or current outfitters like Manuel and Jaime Castenada are writ large in the history of the western tailoring. Do you have a particular favorite or influence?
I love Manuel’s work. His sense of colour and his cutting skills is fabulous. And the fact that I get to talk with him about his work and sit and watch his embroiderer, Pancho, who is such an artist, at work is wonderful. And Rodeo Ben – the tailoring is so sharp. I’ve seen some beauties. One of the ones I saw in the Country Music Hall of Fame archive still smelled of smoke, even though it probably hadn’t been worn since the 1950s. And then I love Nathan Turk’s work too. It’s not quite as jokey as Nudie’s. He was inspired a lot by Eastern European folk dress, so his stuff can be quirky. The workmanship is very fine too. I get to examine garments closely. I made a point to look at his work last time I was in The CMHoF archive and I learned a lot about sewing! I have a little mantra: if a technique was good enough for Mr Turk, it’s good enough for me!
Is there any one outfit that you particularly love?
So many…. Some of Mr Turk’s outfits for The Maddox Brothers and Rose, who were marketed as ‘The Most Colorful Hillbilly Band in America’. Dwight’s ‘Hillbilly Deluxe’ jacket. And there was an outfit that I saw Jim Lauderdale wear at the AMA festival this year. It was a western tailored suit made by Manuel, no embroidery or rhinestones – I love that crisp tailoring. It was black with a red pinstripe and red arrows. I love the way Manuel makes the arrows emphasise the manly shape of the jacket. I told Jim that I am the fangirl who gets a little thrill every time he turns his back on the audience, and shows the pairs of curved arrows on the back of his jacket! He wore it with a shirt that I had made, but I would have loved it even if he hadn’t! It was a great combination, though.
How did you come to start Dandy & Rose?
Well, like I say, I had been making western shirts for many years and I had been making them from Liberty fabrics for a long time too, just for myself and friends. As a teenager, I had a great interest in William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement, so I’d always loved Liberty designs, as they are so associated with that era. So again, bringing them together with western wear was quite natural. It was only later, when someone pointed it out, that I realised I had created a fusion – Liberty of London, it’s so English! And western wear is so American. Then, when I was starting the MA, I realised that there were all these western shirt patterns that you could buy over the internet, some of them from as far back as the 1940s. People’s sewing skills back then were so advanced and they included all the difficult bits, like ‘smile’ pockets and ‘shotgun’ cuffs, which I really wanted to understand, because I knew I’d be examining a lot of garments in my research.
So I bought one and made it up. I used some blue fabric I had used to make a shirt for myself and another for a friend, and made the piping from some Liberty paisley left over from a dress I had just made. It turned out pretty well! But I had no idea what size guy it would fit, so I asked the window cleaner to try it on. He just happened to be there cleaning the windows when I finished it. He still cleans my windows and we sometimes have a laugh about his important role in my business start-up. I showed that shirt to Jim Lauderdale and he loved it, so I made one for him. He was the first person to wear one onstage and other people started ordering from there. It was about a year and a half before I realised I could sell them, and came up with the name Dandy & Rose. There are people from all walks of life and some terrific Americana musicians – Danny Wilson of Danny and The Champions of The World has six D & R shirts. And I have made for Dean Owens, Rod Picott and the Swedish singer songwriter Christian Kjellvander too. Sturgill Simpson has one of my shirts. And I just made one for John Levanthal – I’ve still got my fingers crossed, waiting to hear whether it’s a good fit! All these talented and creative people – it means a lot that they like my work. And then, sometimes when I see artists wearing them onstage, I am suddenly struck by how surprising it all is. I just make them in my spare room, and there they are, on the screen in the soapNashville, or on the stage of the Ryman, or whatever. And I think of my grandma, who used to charge sixpence to the other women in the mining village where she lived, to cut down a pair of worn out mens’ trousers and make them into boys’ clothes. She’d have been amazed. Sewing is like that. It runs deep.
Is being based in the UK an advantage or not?
I live in Lewes, East Sussex, just near Brighton. I don’t really think about whether it’s advantageous or not! It’s just where I live! It’s a very nice place, and I brought up my family here.
Currently that style of dress is way out of favour in Music Row. Do you foresee a change in that at all? Is it all related to the core value of the music?
If you mean is it related to traditionalism, then yes, it is. We have been in a pop-country phase for a long time, and it looks as if the wheel might be about to turn, but I doubt if that will bring a return to rhinestones. I think that people will always flirt with the Nudie suit style, just because it’s joyous, but I doubt if any new artists will take it on as part of their identity in the way that Dwight and Marty and Jim have. I hope I’m wrong though!
The new C2C event has artists like Dwight Yoakam and Kacey Musgraves on the bill who seem want to continue to tap into that tradition – although recently Dwight seems to have his band in the rhinestones while he wears denim – has that a knock on effect?
In fact when Dwight turns round, you will see that there is a band of rhinestones on the back of his denim jacket. Did you know that, for the Americana Music Association Awards Show, the house band all borrow jackets from Manuel? That’s a place you can always see them, and a community that appreciates the history behind them.
Much of the audience seem to be content to let the stars wear the flashy clothes onstage. Is that a natural conservatism for that particular audience unlike the way that the followers of punk or the new romantics were as out there as the performers?
I think rhinestones are performance wear. They always have been and that’s the way it is. I see a lot of western wear in the audience, though – shirts and boots. When I first listened to country music, there were always a lot of people in the audience who were in costume. I remember going to see Tammy Wynette at The Royal Festival Hall, and there were cowboys and Indians in the audience! I remember a woman dressed as what they used to call a ‘squaw’, western-movie style. Lyle Lovett has told me how funny it was for him, coming here from Texas in the late 80s to play The Wembley Festival, and seeing British guys in woolly chaps in the audience! You used to see it during the line dancing boom, too – lots of fringes and hats.
Is there a price element involved also, as a lot of the tailoring is bespoke and there for more costly than off the peg?
Given that though there are producers like Scully and Rockmount make some good shirts. Would you agree?
Yes. I’ve got a Scully shirt with sequins on. I wore it for my MA graduation!
Do you base your patterns on those of earlier eras or do you adapt and create your own.
I used to use vintage patterns but now I don’t. I have a basic cut for the shirt. I alter it to fit and cut new yokes to vary. I try to reflect the print I am using in the yoke shape. There is a lot of detailed work in the piping, pattern matching etc, so I try to keep the designs simple. It’s all very labour intensive. There is a bit of a late 60s, 70s vibe to them… they are a bit cosmic, I think!
What does the future hold for Dandy and Rose and for the music in general?
There are a couple of exciting things coming up for Dandy & Rose but they are under wraps! Watch this space!
Interview by Stephen Rapid