If you watched wrestling during its early 1990s nadir, back when the WWE was mired in a steroid scandal and Atlanta-based rival WCW was still a distinctly redneck institution along the lines of NASCAR, you probably remember the crazy costumes. Giant González, billed at 8 feet tall, coming to the ring to wrestle the Undertaker wearing a skinsuit with painted-on fur. Mike Halac, aka Mantaur, sporting a 50-pound bull head that caused him to topple over in the ring. Bastion Booger, among the last of 300-pound grappler Mike Shaw’s many gimmicks, squeezed into a bizarre skin-tight one-piece that hugged his ass and nutsack and left nothing to the imagination. And, of course, the Ultimate Warrior, his body still rippling with muscle but perhaps less so than his late-1980s heyday, covered those muscles in a singlet that was itself… covered with muscles.
“One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art,” Oscar Wilde once wrote. But wrestlers have to do both — looking like works of art and wearing works of art — to earn their living. If the costume doesn’t fit the gimmick and the gimmick doesn’t work with that wrestler’s body, the wrestler can expect to have a short career.
“Exotic” Adrian Street knew this all too well. Very early in his career, the Welsh wrestler sported a blonde mullet, a tan and a relatively muscular physique. Street was trying to riff a bit on Gorgeous George and “Playboy” Buddy Rogers, two men who used flowing robes and bleached-blonde hair to redefine villainy in the 1950s and 1960s, only to be met with primarily homophobic insults from working-class British fans. So Street did what any Pro Wrestling 101 student would do: He doubled down on the androgyny and gender confusion to further inflame their passions.
“My costumes started getting wilder,” he told interviewer Simon Garfield in 1996. “In the beginning, I’d wear a little bit of makeup, so that when I walked by on my way to the ring people would whisper, ‘Is he wearing makeup?’ In the end, the makeup got more obvious and I started sticking sequins and rhinestones on my face. Nobody was painting their face like that before me. Boy George wasn’t even born when I started. And in the States, nobody painted their face before me. Nobody wore spandex before I arrived on the scene.”
Street, one of the sport’s great innovators, introduced a look that paralleled the glam rock of his era, but that gimmick achieved world renown when Vince McMahon took it and applied it almost wholesale to Dustin Rhodes, the son of charismatic, heavyset Southern wrestling icon Dusty Rhodes. Both Dusty and Dustin had sported very basic trunks with their initials on the rear and cowboy-style wrestling boots, pretty much the generic uniform for Southern wrestlers of the 1970s and 1980s. But McMahon had other ideas for Dustin, who had been cut by WCW in 1995 after a moderately successful four-year stint there — he hoped to hire Rhodes and outfit him in the style of a much, much taller Street (Rhodes is 6-foot-6, Street a mere 5-foot-7).
“Vince said, ‘I’ve got this character I want to run by you. His name is Goldust,’” Rhodes wrote in his autobiography. “They said Goldust was an androgynous character. I knew what that meant, even though they never said, or even implied, that Goldust was gay. To this day, they have never used that word in reference to Goldust. They just called him a bizarre, androgynous character. I’ve always been fascinated with paint. Basically, I would look like a gold statue, like an Oscar with some bizarre things painted onto my face. I thought about the whole idea and realized Goldust could be the way for me to step out of my father’s shoes and forever move myself out from under his shadow.”
For Dustin Rhodes and Adrian Street, the clothes came to define their careers, much as it did for superstar Shinsuke Nakamura, who describes how his abiding interest in fashion helped him get away from basic black trunks favored by young Japanese wrestlers, particularly “Young Lions” who came from legitimate amateur wrestling backgrounds like him. “I was in an art club before I joined the college fashion club,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I would just draw whatever I thought was interesting and see where it took me. I also bought canvases with club funds, had a solo show in Aoyama, things like that. And I realize pro wrestling is an art. I want to create something to stop people in their tracks, like ‘what was that?’ I believe the range of pro wrestling will expand in the end, if we can express something even more in this space between dream and reality.”
For many wrestlers, though, the choice of trunks versus MMA-style boxer briefs versus tights comes down to much more prosaic considerations. “For me, it was fairly simple when I started out,” says Bobby Smedley, who wrestled for Smoky Mountain Wrestling and WCW as Bobby Blaze. “I had a friend who had also wrestled who was looking to sell some trunks and boots as a package deal at a real cheap price. The trunks were even light blue, a color I liked, and had my initials, BS, on them. Money was tight, and it was an easy decision at the time. I’d later wear whatever worked for wherever I was working at the time — singlet, T-shirt, whatever made sense.”
Jeff Cobb, who competed in wrestling at the Olympics and now wrestles for Ring of Honor, had a similarly matter-of-fact path to his current ring outfit, a singlet with the block letters “SPLX” on it. “Early on, I wore boxer-type trunks, but the singlet makes sense since amateur wrestling is a big part of what I do in the ring,” he says. “And I’m known for all my suplexes, which is what the fans want to see. People don’t jump into my suplexes, I lift them. So it’s truth in advertising.”
Aubrey Sitterson, author of The Comic Book Story of Professional Wrestling, has great affection for this sort of simplicity. “My all-time favorite overall wrestling aesthetic is late 1970s/early 1980s Southeastern stuff. Jim Crockett Promotions in the Mid-Atlantic of course, but also stretching down to encompass the Mid-South, Georgia and Florida territories,” he says. “Seemingly everyone in those days had a drawer full of different colored trunks, each one monogrammed with their initials on the hip. Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes, Arn and Ole Anderson, Tully Blanchard — they all did it.”
That said, Ring of Honor wrestler Kenny King, who has appeared on The Bachelorette and Bachelor in Paradise, wanted nothing to do with old-school trunks, spending his entire career wrestling in either tights or the boxer-brief style trunks worn by MMA fighters — a move that dovetailed with how he emphasized his background in amateur athletics, starting from his first appearance on MTV’s Tough Enough. “I swore I would never wear the underwear,” he tells me, referring to the droopy-assed drawers worn by the likes of an aging Flair as well as fat, oafish fathers everywhere. “That one decision pretty much determined everything else.”
For long-time indie wrestler Austin Aries, who is exceedingly concerned with his physique and diet, wrestling attire was something that shouldn’t distract from one’s own skills. “You can wear a cool jacket or a T-shirt outside of the match, but for someone who emphasizes the wrestling side of the performance, simple trunks and tights, knee pads and elbow pads are fine,” he says.
Yet true super-fans like Lance Peterson, a memorabilia collector and podcaster, grew up appreciating the variety of looks on offer. For him, wrestling in the Dallas area during the 1980s served up a veritable buffet of fascinating costumed gimmicks, ranging from the traditional to the outlandish. “There were the Von Erichs with their cool jock appeal, who had this amazing aura and basically lived down the street from us, just 25 miles from downtown Dallas,” he tells me. “Then you had the monsters, with the Great Kabuki’s mysterious look, a huge King Kong Bundy who could really move in the ring and the Missing Link, who combined a colorful, face-painted muscular look with lunatic mannerisms like hitting his head with a chair. Kamala was another monster who was very colorful with his makeup and spear in 1983. And Bruiser Brody was like the Von Erich brothers’ older uncle, just adored in Dallas.”
For Peterson, Brody’s big fur boots, Kamala’s skirt and painted stomach, Bundy’s two-strap black singlet, and the green mist the Kabuki spat in the faces of opponents were all part of the rich pageant of wrestling. “The gimmicks they created themselves, like the ‘Gorgeous’ Jimmy Garvin gimmick, nobody can do that anymore because nobody has the freedom. But Garvin drew me in with his over-the-top confidence and look even though he wasn’t a muscle guy.”
Chris Moreno, the illustrator and co-creator of The Comic Book Story of Professional Wrestling, also found the sport’s many wardrobe options to be a key part of its appeal — especially those of the luchadores from Mexico. “I’m pretty much a fan of all lucha costumes,” he explains. “They recognize the power of visual themes and iconography and convey so much of the wrestler’s personality. The base design of the lucha hood is the same, but there are so many variations you can make on that design, with new innovations happening every day.”
“The clothes accentuate key character features,” says wrestling promoter Marcus Dowling. “For Jerry Lawler, the drop of the single strap on his singlet signaled his comeback. For King Kong Bundy, the two-strap singlet accentuated how large he was. Steve Austin’s black trunks made him a guy who was what he was and nothing more. Sonny Kiss does so much by wearing that particular gear, which speaks to athleticism, sexuality, charisma — the whole package.”
For Dowling, one of today’s other best-attired wrestlers is the WWE’s Lacey Evans, whose expansive wardrobe runs the gamut from “Southern belle” to “hot marine” but always flatters her gym-forged physique. “Once the WWE realized exactly what they had with Lacey, it was game on,” Dowling says.
Storytelling purposes aside, wrestling gear plays a critical part in that most primal of human processes: instantly picking favorites, making that choice personal and taking all criticism of it personally. The wrestler may select his monogrammed trunks because they represent a hell of a bargain, like Bobby Smedley, or out of expedience, like Kenny King and Jeff Cobb, or because he is patriotic and American flag shorts really get over big with the Japanese fans, like Eric “Butterbean” Esch knew all too well. But no matter the reason, the wrestlers then present themselves to us as our potential champions, representatives worthy of hearty applause or fierce disdain.
Bearing all that in mind, my favorite wrestler was Dusty Rhodes, not so much because he was a “common man” but because, in his droopy-drawered trunks with, in his words, a “heinie just a little too big” and a “belly just a little too fat,” he resembled my own father, another sloppy middle-aged Southern jock gone to seed.
Sitterson, of course, like nearly every other wrestling fan, would disagree with me. “Randy Savage had the best wrestling look of all time, and his bandana was better than the cowboy hat,” he insists. “Anyone who says otherwise is lying to you, their god, and worst of all, themselves.”