If you want a perfect example of how fast tastes change, just look to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who spent a portion of his 2017 SNL hosting gig joking about his famously “cringeworthy” 1994 ensemble of a black turtleneck, jeans, chain and a fanny pack. The joke was that the world’s most famous bald actor and former WWE champ should be ashamed of his 1990s looks. Yet here we are, just a few years later, and you can’t put out a collection without a turtleneck; people love fanny packs now, and there’s a certain Bistro Vibe feel to the way Johnson tucked in his shirt, if I may say so. People are actually trying to dress like The Rock circa 1994.
But they’re not just trying to dress like just this version of the Rock in 1994, the one that turned into a meme. Kine up any late-1990s “Attitude Era” picture of The Great One in a WWE ring and you will be bombarded with nothing but Big Fits. Long before he became the face of Under Armour, you could tune into Monday Night Raw and likely see The Rock swaggering down to the ring looking like he’d just robbed the Versace store. And he was hardly alone. Spend a little time watching old wrestling promo videos from the time when the WWE was still the WWF, as well as from the WCW, ECW, NWA or any other defunct wrestling promotion from the ‘80s or ‘90s, and you’ll find more than a few inspiring looks when the wrestlers are given a few minutes to truly be themselves.
When we think of wrestlers, we usually envision them in their ring attire: sweaty guys in speedos or singlets beating up on each other and putting one another in less than compromising holds. But the Rock outfits come from his promos—the segments to build up a match, where the wrestlers get to talk about whatever feud they’re in. In recent years, the promo look has largely gone away—it’s a relic of a time when wrestling was less corporate and the talent were given a little more leeway with how they presented their characters to fans. Today, wrestlers typically use their camera time to wear the latest shirt that has their name on it since they get a cut of the merchandise sales. Which is good for wrestlers, but less than ideal for the once-great genre of promo style.
The promo look was at its peak in the 1980s, which happens to be when Ric Flair set the standard both inside the ring and out. Even if you’ve never seen him wrestle, you’ve maybe seen the videos of football players doing Flair’s famous “Stylin’ & Profilin’” promo, where he boasts about being a “Rolex wearing, diamond ring wearing, kiss stealing, wheeling-dealing, limousine riding, jet flying, son of a gun,” who will have a hard time holding his gator-skin shoes down. Basically any photo or interview with Flair throughout his almost 50 year career is a little crash course in how to dress like an absolute baller. The foundation includes custom-made suits, gold chains around his neck, and loafers on his feet made of some sort of reptile skin.
But go a little beyond Flair, and you’ll start noticing that in their own subtle ways, a lot of his contemporaries also had some great looks outside of the ring. Some of them were proto-plus-sized style icons, big dudes who didn’t care what you thought about what they wore, and some of them looked really good. The guy that stood next to Flair during the best era of his career as part of the famed Four Horsemen stable, Arn Anderson, is almost always overlooked when it comes to the conversation of wrestling’s most stylish guys. Maybe it’s because he was nowhere near as brash as his buddy, or because his hair started thinning out a little early, but Anderson’s golden-year looks are admirable. Like Flair, he often had a Rolex on his wrist, but the shorter (at least by wrestling standards, at 6’1”), beefier guy known as “Double A” was more of a polo or t-shirt guy. Really, it was his eyewear, aviators or wire-rimmed glasses, that really made the look. For over a decade, Anderson was wrestling’s king of understated style. Pure cool dad that all the other dads are afraid of looks. One of Flair’s greatest rivals, Dusty Rhodes, was also a master of the promo look. Dial up old videos of “The American Dream” on the mic, whether it’s his famous “Hard Times” speech or nearly any other shot of him before a match, and you’ll see all kinds of vintage grails from old Hank Williams Jr. shirts, satin jackets and lots of denim.
The WWE era that followed is best characterized by the iron-fist control employed by Vince McMahon, turned a sport that grew from the traveling carnivals of the 19th century into something corporate and formulaic. Like Henry Ford did with cars or Ray Kroc did with food, McMahon came up with a formula that made him an insanely wealthy man. It’s difficult to explain the formula to people who haven’t been watching the WWE for years, but it could be summed up best by saying that the faces may change, but the stories and the way they’re presented tend to stay the same. McMahon’s product is famously no longer “wrestling”; it’s “sports entertainment.” Gone were the gonzo, stream-of-consciousness interviews, and along went the great fits. It became all about t-shirts. While the way wrestlers dress for promos is low on the list of things longtime wrestling fans might gripe about when the WWE comes up, for me, it perfectly encapsulates just how boring the promotion many of us grew up watching has become.
While the promo look has been largely written off over the last few decades, the WWE’s biggest competitor, All Elite Wrestling, might be changing things. Since its founding in 2019, Tony Khan’s promotion has made a name for itself for its interesting storylines, and the room it gives wrestlers to help develop their characters. It’s also brought some of the WWE’s biggest stars over. Two of those wrestlers, Cody Rhodes and Chris Jericho, have helped infuse some of the old-school spirit into AEW. It makes sense: Rhodes, who wrestles and is the promotion’s Executive Vice President, is the son of the great Dusty Rhodes; while Jericho, at 50, is still one of the best workers in the business. He’s one of the last active links to the old days.
For longtime fans like me, it’s been fun watching something new that also feels instantly familiar. And one of the things I can’t help but notice is how often you’ll see wrestlers do promos in street clothes: “Hangman” Adam Page, for instance, has adopted the persona of the cowboy wrestler that has been a fixture in the business for decades. He’ll go to the ring in a leather vest with a bandana around his neck, but he’s also often seen in western wear when he’s giving an interview. Maxwell Jacob Friedman, who goes by the ring name MJF, wears a Burberry scarf. (Whether the scarf is real or not is a matter of debate.) Then there’s Orange Cassidy, whose look and persona is “Jaded guy in a Canadian tuxedo who you might see in a bar in Bushwick or Austin.” You almost always see him in his denim jacket, jeans and aviators, hands in his pocket, zero fucks given. It all feels like a welcome throwback.
The thing about wrestling is that it’s just as much about presentation as it is story. How the wrestler looks tells us everything we need to know: a wrestler who always wears sunglasses, for instance, is usually cocky, often a heel; a wrestler who wears suits all the time will likely boast about how wealthy he is, a surefire way to piss off crowds. These days, some wrestlers dress like straight-up crust punks with dreads and pants covered in sewn-on patches, a way to show their outsiderness. Other wrestlers just wear tights and boots, while others still have silly costumes, and that will never change.
What makes things more interesting, what gives the scripted world a feeling of being grounded in reality, is when the wrestlers truly show us who they are through their own sense of style. Nobody summed this up quite like AEW’s MJF when he explained that the Burberry plaid scarf was a nod to his childhood hero, Roddy “Rowdy” Piper, who wore a kilt and leather Schott motorcycle jacket to the ring. The scarf, he explained, is a tribute to the guy who made him want to be a wrestler, But, even more importantly: “It looks ridiculously good on me.”