They used to say “clothes make the man,” which was always a stupid saying, but what they should really start saying is “it’s the clothes that make the person” because the patriarchy and culture hurt everybody. Nonetheless, throughout the history of professional wrestling, if a given performer isn’t quite clicking with audiences, a costume change has been one common solution for promoters hoping to kick their charges up a proverbial notch without resorting to a full-blown repackaging.
It’s all about context -- just like in the real world. We expect you’re sitting there reading this in your pajamas and faded nWo T-shirt covered in Cheetos dust, which is perfectly acceptable attire for goofing off in your apartment or parents’ basement. But you wouldn’t dress that way to a job interview, would you? Of course not. Not after what happened last time. A serious business office requires different presentation than a secluded World of Warcraft session, just as certain eras in professional wrestling mandate different aesthetic sensibilities. For instance, imagine Matt Borne stumbling to the ring in his Doink the Clown costume to compete in the Cruiserweight Classic. That would be extremely incongruous, as well as hilarious, but the point we’re trying to make here stands, regardless.
Here, we’ve compiled some of the most spot-on costume changes in the history of wrestling, as well as several unfortunate missteps. Hopefully, some of this guidance will rub off and prevent readers from ever arriving to a fancy dinner party in a Superman costume, showing up to astronaut training in a T-shirt that says “Astronauts Are Stupid,” coming to a meeting with Donald Trump dressed as a woman, looking too much like someone who’s ever read a book at a Trump Rally, or arriving to a BDSM party dressed up like Barney the Dinosaur. Actually, that last one would probably be just fine.
20 Best: Matt Hardy
Traditionally, some tag teams have benefited from both members dressing more-or-less the same. But for The Hardy Boyz, their colorful "Hot Topic" chic approach to presentation mostly made it easier for Jeff to overshadow Matt for years. Over time, Jeff Hardy started dying his hair more garishly and experimenting with facepaint. Meanwhile, Matt Hardy’s skateboarder pants mostly made him resemble that dude who works at "Spencer’s Gifts" at the mall. His fashion choices made him distinct enough, but hardly intimidating.
But then he emerged as “Broken” Matt Hardy and after decades in wrestling, finally established an unforgettable look. With big poofy hair and a coat that recalls a B-movie supervillain, the slightly elder Hardy has established his Broken Supremacy over all, including and especially his obsolete mule and inferior sibling, Brother Nero.
19 Worst: Ryback
The human being formerly known as Ryan Reeves who’s recently taken to the independent circuit under the alias “The Big Guy” has never been given much credit for originality. Nor should he be. During his WWE run, his personality was appropriated from Bill Goldberg. He borrowed the idea of legally changing his name to “Ryback” from The Ultimate Warrior. The multi-colored singlets he used to routinely wear looked an awful lot like the multi-colored singlets often associated with Rob Van Dam. And when it came time to tweak his presentation a bit for a soon-aborted run as a heel, he started wearing plain black trunks, quite like Steve Austin or, for that matter, Goldberg again.
But nobody cared when Ryback made the change to simpler ring gear and a contract dispute ended his WWE employment soon thereafter.
18 Best: Emma
Ryback might be terrible at lifting old ideas and making them seem like his own. Underrated women’s roster standout Emma, on the other hand, is quite a different story. When we think of the phrase “shoulder pads” as they pertain to pro wrestling, our minds likely conjure up images of Hawk and Animal’s hulking, functionally useless spiky shoulder accessories, correct? The Road Warrior’s shoulder pads made them look like total ass kickers, but served no other purpose and were likely a hassle to carry around from city to city. But to distinguish herself a bit, Emma’s been wearing equally pointless but much more compact and also awesome-looking shoulder pads on the way to her matches. She is once again set to change her gear with a new re-packaging. Based on the vignettes, we await with enthusiasm.
Speaking of The Road Warriors, some people are astonished that Paul Ellering is still alive, but they shouldn’t be. Paul Ellering can never die.
17 Worst: Raven
Back in the early 2000s, Raven was trying to get himself a long overdue push past mid-card status, and thought switching from his trademark “homeless goth guy”-style garb over to plain black trunks -- which was more in-keeping with the rest of the locker room at the time -- might help do the trick.
He was released not too long after, so clearly, it didn’t work. Historically, Raven still stands as one of WWE’s most egregious missed opportunities. With mic skills and technical chops on par with the likes of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Scott Levy easily could’ve been one of the company’s top heels throughout the ‘00s. Sadly, around that time, WWE had trouble finding storylines for any heels who weren’t Triple H or one of Triple H’s proteges. Pretty weird coincidence, right?!
16 Best: The Usos
Sure, dancing and clapping worked out alright for Jimmy and Jey Uso for a while, but it started to get boring for crowds probably somewhere in the vicinity of 2013. So their recent character reassignment over to two mean dudes who like beating people up was a welcome shift and ironically made them more sympathetic. If your bosses had been forcing you to dance, clap and smile, all in order to sell more T-shirts and 5-hour Energy Drinks for years, you’d be bitter and angry too, wouldn’t you?
Along with the change in demeanor came a change in attire. Now, The Usos look like two dudes dressed like two normal dudes, instead of a pair of walking, face painted advertisements for their own merchandise.
15 Worst: Samoa Joe
Back during the Vince Russo era of TNA, somebody (probably Russo) thought it made sense to dress Samoa Joe up like a C-List Mortal Kombat character. Joe was already a decisively over star with his own distinctive look at that point, so trying to make him TNA’s answer to Glacier and Mortis was both stupid and completely unnecessary.
Since then, Joe smartened up and hopped over to WWE with the other worthwhile former TNA mainstays who aren’t in Ring of Honor. It was good timing on his part -- another few years in TNA and he’d be in danger of getting sued by Billy Corgan. Instead, he’s enjoyed a reign as NXT World Champion and a series of truly epic matches against the brand's current champion, the mighty Shinsuke Nakamura.
14 Best: Kane
While not every storyline that followed Kane’s 2003 unmasking is exactly remembered as a golden point in The Big Red Machine’s career, there’s something to be said for the fact that Glenn Jacobs managed to make his character even creepier after the facial facade fell asunder.
In subsequent years, the mask itself has become representative of a whole different personality. We in the audience understand that Corporate Kane and Demon Kane are the same person, but the alternating presentations indicate different agendas. Corporate Kane is interested in maintaining or enhancing his power within the larger infrastructure of WWE, as opposed to Demon Kane, who just wants to chokeslam people and only cares about chokeslamming. So, here we have a costume change that not only revitalized a lagging performer, but gave his role in the WWE a whole new dimension.
13 Worst: The Dudley Boyz
This selection might prove a wee bit controversial. The majority of fans likely have an easier time remembering Bubba Ray and D-Von Dudley in the camouflage outfits they wore throughout their illustrious WWE careers than the tie-dye T-shirts that solidified the Dudley brand in ECW. WWE even had good reason to take The Dudleys out of their tie-dye.
Swirling multicolored garb was already closely associated with Mick Foley’s Dude Love incarnation during the late ‘90s and WWE’s writers definitely wouldn’t want fans to assume The Dudleys and Dude Love were in any way affiliated. Regardless, when some of us envision a gang of Dudley Boyz harassing a crowd into a frenzied riot, then beating up The Sandman and Tommy Dreamer, those Dudley Boyz in our imagination certainly are not wearing camouflage.
12 Best: Naomi
Not even a year ago, Naomi was the leader of the Team B.A.D. stable, which was transparently nothing more than a mechanism to introduce Sasha Banks to the main roster. Naomi’s role was to look tougher than Sasha Banks for about a week, then get beat up by Sasha Banks, on the way to Banks becoming the breakout star she was clearly destined to become. Naomi was basically a jobber with a storyline, albeit an important jobber with an important storyline.
Now, thanks in part due to a costume change that allows her to better utilize her cheerleading background, she’s got a completely unique presence among the SmackDown women’s division where it’s becoming increasingly difficult for any competitor to stand out. She's also situated in the picture for the brand’s Women’s Title. Hopefully the “Glow” shtick leads to her getting a run with the belt. Having been one of the most -- if not the most -- athletic women in the company since 2010, she’s way overdue.
11 Worst: Bray Wyatt
For a good long while, WWE has been getting in its own way properly positioning Bray Wyatt to take over as their resident mystic spooky badass when The Undertaker finally retires. Giving him a few solid wins over Randy Orton is certainly a good start and Luke Harper’s return seems to have given Wyatt’s character a better sense of definition. Hopefully the course correction lasts.
However, it’s worth questioning whether taking away Wyatt's Hawaiian shirt and fedora cap and replacing them with a mangy black leather coat and no hat was the best move. The Hawaiian shirt motif gave Wyatt an air of sophisticated hillbilly menace, as opposed to the more conventionally “dark dude” presentation, which just makes him look a former bass player for "Slipknot." Nobody wants to see Bray Wyatt -- under a name like Way Bryatt, for legal purposes -- headlining the "Gathering of the Juggalos" in two years, so it’s best that the WWE make that scenario as implausible as possible sooner rather than later.
10 Best: Mankind
Mick Foley famously described the original concept for the Mankind costume - a fairly simple brown singlet - as akin to a giant chunk of fecal matter, which is why he added the cryptic symbol to the back. Of course, today nobody immediately identifies that outfit as the iconic Mankind garb. Instead, we remember the mangled button down T-shirt and sweatpants as signature Mankind. This was the less monster-like version of the character who told jokes and won matches by choking his opponent with a sock puppet. Not coincidentally, it’s also the version of Mankind that won various World Championships.
Foley’s portrayed many personas -- Cactus Jack, Mankind, Dude Love, and his current incarnation -- a combination of everybody’s favorite uncle and an ineffectual authority figure. But Mankind underwent the only lasting shift of presentation within a character.
9 Worst: Basically Every Unmasked Luchador
Thankfully, not everyone remembers Rey Mysterio losing a “mask vs. hair” match in 1999 and being forced to abandon a major aspect of his in-ring identity. Let’s say, hypothetically, you don’t know anything about the history of Lucha Libre or the importance it places on masks. From a purely clueless white person standpoint, Rey Mysterio losing his mask makes about as much sense as forcing The Ultimate Warrior to never wear facepaint again.
The mere name “WCW” is practically synonymous with poor booking decisions by this point, so predictably, they decided to unmask Juventud Guerrera and Psychosis as well. Oddly, it did not occur to the WWE to re-mask Guerrera or Psychosis during their brief time in The Mexicools stable during the mid-’00s, even though Psychosis’ old demonic mask with massive black and white horns was a thing of sheer magnificence.
8 Best: Sting
Bear in mind, part of the reason why the name “WCW” is synonymous with bad booking is because WWE won the Monday Night War and therefore gets to write history. WCW had its share of terrible ideas, but re-imagining Sting as wrestling’s version of Brandon Lee in The Crow was definitely not one of them.
Sting was fine and good as a happy-go-lucky babyface, especially in the ‘80s and early ‘90s when that type of persona could obviously make a lot of money. Plenty of wrestlers tried to reinvigorate their image with the changing times, but none managed quite so brilliantly as Sting. Dude went from smiling and sunny to severely brooding and, as a result, a much more effective foil for the nWo than any of his contemporaries -- i.e. Randy Savage, Lex Luger, ect. -- from the passe era of Flair and Hogan.
7 Worst: Matt Borne
This is only a worst because of its aura of missed opportunity. While clowns wouldn’t rise to their current pinnacle of ubiquity and popularity until more than 20 years later, perhaps clowns should’ve become the hot new thing in 1993 when the former Doink the Clown Matt Borne arrived in ECW.
Instead of a true gimmick change, Borne’s character in ECW and later in his career was merely the logical progression of Doink. Instead of an insane person who dressed up like a clown, Borne became a bitter insane person who sort of, occasionally, dressed like a clown. Sadly, Borne’s ECW run was cut short -- allegedly due to “personal problems.” Borne died in 2013, and we’ll be damned if that guy doesn’t deserve a Hall of Fame spot, even maybe if he was a little bit legit crazy in real life.
6 Best: The Rock
The story has been told many, many times, and surely you, reader, are familiar with Rocky Maivia’s regrettable early days wearing silly blue streamers and behaving like an “aw, shucks” babyface. Crowds weren’t at all psyched about Rocky and their ire gave birth to the “Rocky Sucks” chants of yore.
Rocky dialled up the more arrogant aspects of his personality, started going by “The Rock,” dropped the garish garb for simple black tights and joined the nefarious Nation of Domination. The Rock went on to achieve innumerable accolades in the WWE, becoming arguably the most recognizable personality the industry has ever produced aside from Hulk Hogan and Steven Austin. After he wrapped up with wrestling, he became a huge frickin’ movie star. And he owes it all to ceasing to dress as a blue pinata.
5 Worst: Jay Lethal
Parodies and satires can be all well and good, but doesn’t it seem like a huge misstep on TNA’s part to present Jay Lethal as “Black Machismo,” considering what he’s demonstrated himself capable of as Ring of Honor champion? Another product of the Vince Russo era of TNA, Black Machismo was a transparent attempt to siphon off some of the excitement that still surrounded the name “Macho Man” Randy Savage in 2006, made worthwhile only because of Lethal’s exceptional skills as an impressionist.
Black Machismo ran its course and Lethal eventually left TNA in 2011. Four years later, Lethal captured the Ring of Honor World Title, held onto it for more than a year -- a previously unprecedented feat -- and is now on the list of “Guys WWE are Stupid If They Don’t Sign Next Time They Get The Chance.” None of this would be possible if he still dressed like the Macho Man.
4 Best: Steve Austin
He doesn’t exactly advertise it too frequently, but wrestling fans know good and darn well that “Stone Cold” Steve Austin used to wear pink tights and kept a mane of flowing blonde hair. He had been successful with that look, of course. That’s how he appeared as part of The Hollywood Blondes tag team alongside Brian Pillman. But as cool as The Hollywood Blondes were, they didn’t come close to achieving the fame Austin did on his own with a shaved head and super simple black trunks.
Several other factors played into the creation of “Stone Cold” -- it took him a bit to evolve from his Ringmaster phase, which is where the shaved head and black trunks originated -- but nonetheless, it’s impossible to envision Austin slamming beers in a pink “Austin 3:16” shirt with an '80s-era Bon Jovi hairdo.
3 Worst: Goldust
When you’ve established an iconic character with an unforgettable look, how much sense does it make to write that character to abandon said look and wrap themselves in whatever myriad materials they found lying around in the prop closet on any given night?
“The Artist Formerly Known as Goldust” was as successful as it could’ve been and adding the late, great Luna Vachon into the mix obviously didn’t hurt. But whenever Dustin Runnels has tried to get out of the shadow of Goldust -- wrestling under his own name, an altered version of Goldust, on even something as ill-conceived as Black Reign -- he always returns to Goldust. He has no choice. Goldust will always control Dustin, and even though he’s struggling against it now, Stardust will eventually reclaim Cody. All of Dusty’s children are destined to be called “SomethingDust.”
2 Best: Hulk Hogan
In the mid-’90s, Hulkamania had run its course and then some. Eating your prayers and saying your vitamins or whatever the heck The Hulkster was talking about wasn't at all resonating with fans in a post-Nirvana pop cultural landscape. Unfortunately, WCW was probably stuck with Hogan in a gah-zillion dollar contract at that point, so what were they to do? The answer, get rid of the red and yellow, put him in black, and make him a heel. And with that, boom, he was the center of arguably the most memorable, unquestionably over wrestling angle of the decade.
Maybe Hogan’s presence in the nWo was detrimental to the stable in the long run -- it’s anyone's guess what the nWo could’ve accomplished if they hadn’t had to deal with baggage like The Disciple and Horace Hogan -- but Hogan certainly put it on the map for the first few months.
1 Worst: The Undertaker
Of every wrestling gimmick ever, aside from the overtly racist and/or sexist and/or homophobic characters, has any aged more poorly than The American Badass? Can we imagine what would happen if, in 2016, Limp Bizkit or Kid Rock played while The Undertaker came down to the ring? Or if he dressed and talked like a regular dude from Texas instead of the legendary Deadman From The Darkside? It’d be a disaster, of course.
It’s easy to say “Well, The American Badass persona made sense in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s,” but did it really? How many memorable storylines and matches did The Undertaker partake in during his American Badass phase? Anything that lands comfortably in The Undertaker’s all-time career top ten? Nope. Maybe a few incidents that land in UT’s top 20, but clearly everyone’s better off when The Undertaker keeps things mystical and ominous. Limp Bizkit is the worst band ever.