If you’ve been involved with the martial arts long then you’ve worn some doozies. How are you ever going to get rid of them? You scour your closet and make bi-annual raids on your “normal clothing” but leave that Qing dynasty scholar’s robe, in which you demonstrated Tai Chi, hanging for—what—eternity? Truly, martial arts is about discipline but, obviously, not sartorial discipline. Did you really wear those Fighting Boots: the one’s with “Goodyear” rubber stamped on the bottom so obvious you could actually read the company’s name on the sole? At least, thank God, you didn’t wear the mid-calf lengths boots—you would have looked like a David Chiang imitator, and white to boot (sorry).
I was one of those shy ones who did not march out in public to MacDonald’s dressed in a Gi, especially with the white or yellow belt sticking out like the inactivated propeller of a Hughes aircraft. On the other hand I did make a short 8mm film dressed as a Chinese chauffeur with brass buttons, a cap and a mask. My big scene was to kick open a door and stand there in Classic Kato. Do I still have that one hanging around somewhere?Above we scrutinize one of the more flamboyant attire from the Northern Shaolin system. Clouds on the knees. This is actually an example of fairly conservative togs. At least there’s not off-the-shoulder tiger striping. You will never see this again since I only took it down to wear for a film shoot requested by the BBC. It spent ten years in my closet, was worn three times and, after this session “split the scene” so to speak. When in their normal—not fugue— states, most martial artists are like me at least in one aspect: they are relatively conservative dressers. I don’t look bad dressed up but often I’d just as soon wear a denim shirt and baggy pants. So what possesses us to don re-sewn flags, dragon-festooned pants, tarmac striped Gi’s, and Day-Glo body suits? I had for many years in my collection one of the infamous “Joe Lewis Peter Max Op Art” Gi’s with the checkerboard design that misted your eyes and supposedly clouded your mind (or am I flashing back to something else here?). The legend is that Lewis saw the op art wall paper in someone’s bathroom, tore off a piece and had our Gi’s designed accordingly. Considering this version of the story you can see how bright we were to actually wear this thing.
When my teacher Willy Lin wanted to design a Kung Fu costume based on the leisure suit back in 1971, I thought he had slipped a wheel off his ox cart. Now try to find someone in China who doesn’t wear one. Meanwhile, I still have my closet full of satin tops, those black cotton jackets with the white roll up sleeves, wraparound Tibetan style blouses and some rather intriguing pants which take three arms to hold while dressing oneself. Ebay? Never. At this rate some of these may be more antique than entire styles of Kung Fu.