Mixed Sartorial Arts: Bruce Lee's Forgotten Style Legacy
Mixed Sartorial Arts: Bruce Lee's Forgotten Style Legacy
- Words Asaf Rotman
- Date June 23, 2020
Apart from rugged charm and undeniable good looks, the classic menswear icons—James Dean, Marlon Brando, Steve McQueen, Serge Gainsborough, Paul Newman (to name a few)—have one thing in common: they are white. Unfortunately, due to both the Tumblr set and media’s propensity to define style through a Euro-centric lens, stylish men of color are woefully underrepresented. Whether it’s Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis or even Prince, time and time again despite constantly celebrating each man’s respective style, we never include them amongst “the greats.” While not as renowned for his sartorial inclination, another iconic individual deserves a spot on the menswear hall of fame: the inimitable Bruce Lee.
While most fans are far more interested in his martial arts prowess and film accolades than his personal wardrobe, Kung-Fu’s most noteworthy practitioner combined classic American style with a specific Hong Kong flair that nobody has matched since. More than the godfather of fighting films, Bruce Lee broke the mold and redefined what it meant to be an Asian American film star—including how to dress for the part. With the release of ESPN’s recent documentary, Be Water, and renewed interest in the late fighter, his style (both onscreen and off) is finally receiving its well-deserved recognition.
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Born in 1940 in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Lee (legal name Lee Jun-Fan) moved with his parents to Hong Kong just three months after he was born. Through his father, a celebrated Cantonese opera singer, Lee was introduced to show business early, landing his first leading role starring opposite his dad in The Kid at just 9 years old. While a natural star, Lee had a penchant for trouble, regularly landing himself in street fights and affiliating himself with various Hong Kong street gangs as an early teen.
In order to discipline their son—and teach him self-defense—Lee’s parents sent him to study martial arts, first directly under his father in the Wu style of ta’i chi chu’uan and later the Wing Chu style under master Yip Man. Despite his prodigious talent, Lee was mocked and eventually shunned by the other students due to his mixed raced heritage (his mother, Grace Ho was Eurasian and the Chinese felt it taboo to teach their style to foreigners). While other students refused to spar with him, Lee privately trained under Yip Man and became one of only a handful of students throughout Wing Chu to study directly under the master.
Due to poor academic performance, Lee was forced to transfer from Catholic La Salle College to St. Xavier’s College where he was mentored by Brother Edward, coach of the school boxing team. With a well-recorded history of disciplinary issues, Brother Edward—like Yip Man before him—urged Lee to focus on training for matches in the ring, as opposed to the street. While Lee quickly took to boxing (like every martial art he experimented with), even winning the Hong Kong high school tournament and knocking out the previous champion in the final round, Lee’s penchant for street fights could not be tamed.
Eventually, Lee fought and brutally beat the son of a local triad boss, and on the advice of the police his father had him relocated to San Francisco to finish his studies. It was during his time in America that Lee further expanded his martial arts knowledge, training in a number of regional styles before founding his own style, Jun Fan Gung Fu. Translation: Bruce Lee’s Kung-Fu.
Content with living as a professional martial artist and teaching at his Seattle institute, Lee showed little to no inclination to return to show business. Then, following the 1964 Long Beach International Karate Championships, everything changed. First, Lee impressed crowds by displaying his two-finger push-up (using the thumb and index finger on one hand with feet shoulder width apart). The show-stopper, however, was the debut of his now iconic “One-Inch Punch”. With one leg forward and a hand curled into a fist directly in front of his opponent, Lee makes a wave starting from his feet and moving throughout the body, building potential energy before quickly releasing it with an impossibly quick punching motion. Quite literally too quick for the era’s film cameras, fans had to watch the clip in slow motion. To the audience’s astonishment, the punch knocked his opponent backwards into a chair a couple of feet away, before sliding across the ring. Next, Lee demonstrated the “Six-Inch Punch,” which proved so powerful that the recipient was bedridden for a week, asking Lee to never perform the technique again.
Following the International Karate Championships, word spread about Lee’s formidable skills and masters from Tae-Kwon Do, Judo and various other disciplines reached out in order to train under him, invariably influencing Lee’s own style. Lee continued to experiment with various martial arts techniques, solidifying his own Kung-Fu before founding a second institute in Oakland.
Finally, Hollywood came calling. Having heard of his astounding physical feats, producer William Dozier reached out to Lee with an offer to audition for an upcoming film. While the project never materialized, Dozier saw potential and eventually cast Lee for a separate project, The Green Hornet. Cast as Kato, the sidekick to Van Williams’ titular Green Hornet, Lee was not only the first major Asian-American superhero, but played a crucial role in introducing Kung-Fu to Western audiences. Though the series only lasted a single 26 episode season—and a pair of crossover episodes with Dozier’s more popular television series, Batman—The Green Hornet became a cult classic and despite his second lead status, Lee was the clear star. A massive success abroad, Green Hornet resonated with Asian audiences, so much so that the show was renamed The Kato Show in Hong Kong. Seizing this opportunity, Lee relocated to Hong Kong in 1971 where he signed a deal with local production company Golden Harvest.
While working with Golden Harvest, Lee not only starred in and choreographed three films—The Big Boss (1971), Fist of Fury (1972) and Way of the Dragon (1972), opposite Chuck Norris—but became a worldwide phenomenon. With the latter two films grossing more than $100 million, Bruce Lee was an international sensation, widely recognized as the preeminent martial arts actor in the world. With this sort of attention came a renewed interest stateside as well, and the actor finally landed his first role in a Hollywood feature film. While filming Game of Death starring opposite basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bruce Lee left the film to play “Lee” in Enter the Dragon. A joint production between Warner Bros. and Golden Harvest, the movie sees Lee and his fellow fighters enter a Kung-Fu tournament in order to track down and defeat a drug dealer whose gang is responsible for the death of his sister. Unfortunately, shortly after production was completed and just six days before the film was released, Lee passed away due to an allergic reaction to painkillers. He was just 32 years old.
Following his premature death, Lee quickly became a cult figure. Those familiar are well aware of his influence. There’s the yellow tracksuit with black racing stripe he wore in Game of Death, which inspired everyone from the Wu-Tang Clan to Quentin Tarantino, he references the iconic outfit via Uma Thurman’s “The Bride” in Kill Bill—fellow actor David Carradine was a noted martial artist and close friend of Lee’s. There are the black and yellow Asics Ontisuka Tigers, which Lee wore not only while filming, but practicing his discipline and training as well. In fact, the yellow/black colorway has proved so popular that countless retailers from BAIT to Kith continue to release “Bruce Lee”-inspired Asics sneakers over four decades later. This infamous Halloween costume, however, is common knowledge. Bruce’s off-screen style, however, is what is often overlooked.
Growing up between Hong Kong and the United States, Lee traveled from one country to the other at pivotal moments in menswear history, bringing pieces he collected along the way. Considering how often he trained, high-waisted wide legged training pants were common alongside traditional Mandarin-collar jackets. Yet, growing up in Hong Kong in the '50s—where Ivy Style was exceptionally popular—before relocating to America in the '60s, Lee was enamored with slim tailoring, regularly wearing charcoal and black suits a la Mad Men. Though the trend faded by the mid-'60s stateside, Lee added his own flare, mixing in Chinese training gear with tailoring and sneakers instead of oxfords.
As his fame grew, so did his penchant for dressing, Nearly as famous for his skill as his attitude—Lee was notoriously boastful and quite liberal with the “truth” often bragging about fights no one saw and feats that seemed superhuman—Lee embraced his maverick reputation. By the late-'60s, Lee had gone full disco, with skin-tight boot cut flare pants, wide peak lapel jackets in tan or plaid, and high heeled go-go boots. Seeing a man with such discipline embrace androgyny and dress so experimentally was unprecedented. Yet, so was Lee. From corset-front denim shirts to animal print ties and yellow-tinted see through aviators, Lee made sure his personal style was as unpredictable as his fighting style.
Even after his death, his legacy—stylistic or otherwise–continues to influence both fashion and culture. As previously mentioned, the Wu-Tang Clan were all noted fans, regularly referencing the “Shaolin” style and various Lee movies across their oeuvre. During the Fall/Winter 2013 season, Supreme even partnered up with Bruce Lee’s estate to produce a capsule centered around his pivotal fight scenes from Enter the Dragon. From a skateboard deck to Vans Sk8-His and various cotton basics in tracksuit yellow, Lee’s face appeared through the collection and, as you can imagine, sold out instantly. Today, the Enter the Dragon pieces command a king’s ransom second-hand and for good reason. Like the film they are based on, they are a cult classic. From Nike to Reebok to EA Sports “UFC” video game, Lee’s legacy is constantly resurfacing.
Towards the end of his life, Lee restructured his eponymous Kung-Fu, feeling that Jun Fan Gung Fu was simply too restrictive and impractical (particularly within the confines of a street fight). So, by adding in elements of boxing, fencing, weight training and running for endurance, he created a new “styleless” style: Jeet Kune Do. The result was a methodology that stressed versatility, believing the most effective technique was the one that worked within the context of any fight. Combining traditional European elements with his traditional Wing Chu, Lee created a whole new methodology, what some considered the basis of modern “mixed martial arts.” This eclectic approach and mindset went beyond his own fighting mechanics, but was in fact Lee’s life mantra. Who said a professional fighter couldn’t be a Hollywood star? Who said they had to dress a certain way? Who said they had to be white? Lee destroyed all those notions. His wardrobe was flashy, his moves were unparalleled, his philosophy unquestionable. Truly, one of the greats.