Talking about Bruce Lee’s Iconic Tracksuit with Shannon Lee

For the next few weeks, we will be publishing a series of interviews in conjunction with Items: Is Fashion Modern? and the related free online course Fashion as Design. Though the exhibition closed in January 2018, the course will continue to be active, serving as a platform to invite new dialogue around questions raised by the exhibition. Enroll in the course at mo.ma/fashionasdesign

Bruce Lee’s daughter Shannon Lee spoke with us last summer about her father’s style.

Bruce Lee wore this red two-piece tracksuit in 1971 on a show called Longstreet.

My father wore this red two-piece tracksuit in 1971 on a show called Longstreet, which was about a blind detective. It was the first time that this style showed up in popular culture on US television.

The episode “Way of the Intercepting Fist” is the translation of Jeet Kune Do, the name for a martial art form that [Bruce Lee] created. The tenets of Jeet Kune Do are simplicity, directness, and freedom, and it’s meant to be a style that is efficient and non-telegraphic; you can’t see it coming. It’s supposed to work in a real combat situation, in a street fight in which there are no rules, no point system. And it’s effective. It was his belief that freedom comes from being able to respond in whatever situation you find yourself. In this Longstreet episode, he very beautifully and succinctly gave his famous quote, “Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless like water.”

For this show, he would have had input into what he was wearing because he wanted his clothing to represent the simplicity, the directness and the freedom of the art. My father wore this type of clothing all the time because he was working out all the time and wanted to see what the restrictions of that clothing were and how his body moved.

If you were to put on this tracksuit, you would be embodying athleticism by wearing it. It has a combination of form and function. It’s graphic, it’s memorable, and it tells you this person is meant to move. I think that’s why, from that point in culture forward, the tracksuit was a signature expression of athleticism or the aspiration toward that.

Bruce Lee action figurine

My father chose the yellow-and-black tracksuit that he wore in Game of Death to represent his idea of “the style of no style.” In that movie, he fights on different levels of a pagoda, and on each level he encounters a different master of a specific style and they’re each wearing a distinct uniform and using distinct weaponry. He wanted to wear something that didn’t signal that he was affiliated with any particular style — he was instead representing himself and his own style. Up to that point, martial arts films in Asia were high dramas with people flying through the air, and they were very unrealistic. The fights were extremely long and complicated, and people had magical powers. They were all about fantasy and choreography. My father hated those movies. He wanted the things that he was good at, like speed and power, to be represented in the movements.

My father was up against so many different types of resistance. His whole life was an interplay of East and West. He was born in San Francisco and raised in Hong Kong, which was under British rule then. He was not 100% Chinese, but actually one-quarter Caucasian, and he was kicked out of martial arts class because martial arts was not taught to people who weren’t fully Chinese. He was up against racism in Hollywood and was not given the part in The Warrior, which later became the TV series Kung Fu, because he was Chinese. He was often criticized in Hong Kong for being too Western and then criticized in Hollywood for being too Eastern. In an interview, Pierre Burton asked him, “Do you consider yourself to be American or Chinese?” And [Bruce Lee] said, “Under the sky, under the heavens, there’s one family. I like to think of myself as a human being.”

How was Bruce Lee courageous? Here’s what I would say: It is a courageous and rebellious act to be your own person. It is much easier to imitate something else that you know is accepted and loved than it is to look inside and follow your own compass because you have no idea if you’ll be accepted, if you’ll be right, if your ideas are good, if your way is a path to success.

The reason we’re still talking about Bruce Lee today, and the reason that he is exciting and those performances still inspire people, is that he had a huge foundation of self-work, and when you see it, you’re immediately drawn to it. He will always remain relevant and cool because of that.

Enroll in the online course Fashion as Design to learn more about Bruce Lee’s tracksuit.