“He Loved To Express Himself With His Clothing”: A Daughter’s Tribute To Mr Bruce Lee
Mr Bruce Lee at Ocean Terminal, Hong Kong, 1972. Photograph courtesy of Bruce Lee Enterprises, LLC
Today, Mr Bruce Lee would have celebrated his 80th birthday. To many, he was a raw, magnetic presence on screen, made more intense thanks to a physique that was seemingly chiselled from marble, and that primal, cat-like scream he employed while dispensing with never-ending hordes of goons. His physical feats noodled the mind – from his blistering speed and power, to the absolute control he had over his body (for reference, search online for his signature “dragon flag” move).
But while his physicality was something that would become synonymous with his name, Mr Lee was also a philosopher at heart. “My father focused just as much energy on conditioning his mind as he did on training his body,” writes Ms Shannon Lee in her new book Be Water, My Friend: The True Teachings Of Bruce Lee. “He intentionally directed his thoughts, his intellect and his imagination towards his dreams, towards the life that he imagined, towards the goals he hoped to achieve, towards positivity and towards understanding himself better.”
Having majored in philosophy at the University of Washington, for Mr Lee, the most important work in life was to be your true, undiluted self, in everything that you do. For him, that meant creating an entirely new combat philosophy – discarding rigid fighting styles for a potent blend of anything that might prove effective in a real-life scuffle – despite cries of sacrilege from the traditional martial arts community.
Accordingly, Be Water, My Friend is brimming with Mr Lee’s philosophies regarding achieving one’s full potential in life. But we like to think he also knew a thing (or five) about style. “My father always loved fashion,” Ms Lee says over a Zoom call. “Growing up in Hong Kong, he had access to brilliant tailors. He had suits made, shirts made – this was when he was a teenager. And he was a dancer, so there’s this performance aspect to [what he wore]. In LA, he used to shop at Fred Segal. He just loved clothes, and he loved to express himself with his clothing.”
With that in mind, we spoke with Ms Lee to explore her father’s inimitable – yet perhaps underrated – style, and what we, in turn, can learn from it.
01. Downtime doesn’t necessarily mean slouch time
During an interview, Hong Kong, 1972. Photograph by J TAM/South China Morning Post via Getty Images
“This look makes me think he must have been in between projects – he’s kind of covered up,” says Ms Lee. “It’s a little bit more covert, he has this incognito look. But at the same time, he’s got the big watch, the bracelet. He’s feeling very comfortable.”
One thing’s clear: even when Mr Lee wasn’t working on set, he still made an effort to look every bit as sharp as his moves. Here, the double-breasted trench coat with wide lapels and chunky buttons provides a striking contrast to the dark polo shirt underneath. Coupled with the facial hair, the whole look is casual, yet chic. Note in particular the jewellery – for which Mr Lee had a certain predilection for (he had quite the collection of luxury watches, according to Ms Lee) – and how it illustrates the actor’s flair for dressing up, even when he’s chilling out.
02. Work hard in the gym? Show it off
With his red Mercedes, Hong Kong, 1970. Photograph courtesy of Bruce Lee Enterprises, LLC
What would an article on Mr Bruce Lee’s style be without a shirtless shot? The fighter was fanatical about training – he routinely ran four to five miles each morning, and lifted weights three times a week. And that’s on top of his daily martial arts practice. By all accounts, Mr Lee liked to put the fruits of his very hard labours on display, and to be honest, we don’t blame him. After all, no one has quite the physique he had – as evidenced by his “dragon wing” lats (trained not for aesthetics, but specifically to increase the speed and power of his punches, of course).
“His torso is an outfit in and of itself,” laughs Ms Lee. But just because you have a body worthy of showing off, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put a little effort into what you’re wearing below. Here, the contrast-pocket jeans and big buckle belt draw the eye, while the gold medallion (which Mr Lee designed and had especially made) balances everything out. “This belt I actually still have,” says Ms Lee. “It has a little knife hidden in the buckle, so it’s also a weapon. He loved weapons, and he really loved things that were concealed.” Who says fashion can’t be functional?
03. Embrace colour and pattern
An appearance on Enjoy Yourself Tonight, Hong Kong, 1972. Photograph courtesy of Bruce Lee Enterprises, LLC
Admittedly, the 1970s were a time of experimentation – hence the boldly hued checked blazer and mint-green shirt combo worn here by Mr Lee during a talk show appearance in Hong Kong. Just out of shot, he was also wearing brown high-heeled platform shoes – for that playful disco panache. “He had shoes where the heels were a solid two and a half inches,” says Ms Lee. “Sometimes he used to even practise martial arts in these types of clothes and shoes because he wanted to be able to know that he could move in them, and understand what they would do to his body. He was always wanting to be ready for anything that might go down at any minute, even if he had this fabulous plaid jacket on.”
04. Wear what makes you feel good – regardless of what other people think
Ocean Terminal, Hong Kong, 1972. Photograph courtesy of Bruce Lee Enterprises, LLC
“It takes a bold man to wear a low-cut, lace-up shirt confidently,” laughs Ms Lee. “And he had more than one, so it was obviously a favourite of his.” While it’s something the average man might flinch at, Mr Lee was clearly secure enough in himself to not only wear a lace-up shirt, but to enjoy it, too. Coupled with the wingtip brogues and the tailored trousers, it’s a far cry from a casual look, but Mr Lee looks as cool and collected as he would in a tracksuit.
“He was extremely experimental in nature, always tinkering with what he liked and what worked for him,” says his daughter. “Something my father talked about a lot was being one’s fully essential, natural self. About tapping into the most alive and authentic version of yourself. He had that quote: ‘I’m not in this world to live up to your expectations, and you’re not in this world to live up to mine. I’m here to embody my own life as much as possible.’ And that’s it, you know?”
05. You can’t go wrong with the classics
On the set of The Big Boss, Thailand, 1971. Photograph by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Throughout Mr Lee’s breakout 1971 movie The Big Boss (from which this still is taken), we see his character, Cheng, mostly wearing a white Henley T-shirt – occasionally layered under a traditional Chinese Tang jacket. While it’s not typical of what Mr Lee would choose to wear off-set – perhaps being slightly too understated – it is clean and it is classic. First worn in the 19th century as the uniform of choice by rowers in Henley-on-Thames, the Henley shirt is a stone-cold staple that, when worn fitted and with the top button undone as Mr Lee does here, just looks, well, right.
“I associate this shirt with him,” says Ms Lee. “Even though it’s just a basic men’s undershirt of some sort, I associate this with him because he wore them in his films. It’s just a classic movie Bruce Lee look to me.” Just be sure yours doesn’t end up ripped and bloodied as Mr Lee’s does by the end of the film.