The karate uniform is something of a mystery and to be quite honest its one that I’ve never cared anything about…until recently. My knowledge about the gi or uniform has been limited to color availability based on belt rank in Shaolin Kempo. It’s admitingly a limited view but then again my tastes are pretty limited in a sense. Meaning I only pay attention to particular arts. At my school I have the students wear a black uniform in place of the traditional white( when you run your own gig there are some things you can change). I was never a fan of the stark white gi. Once you obtain your 1st degree black belt you can mix and match white and black. The next color change is at 2nd degree black where you can use blue in with the black or have a solid blue. After that, the next change is at 5th degree black where you can use red. The only other alternatives are the uniforms designated for team helpers and black belt club members. The team helpers and b.b. club members have a wide variety of colors and designs to choose from. While I’m here…The 5th degree black belt is the beginning of the mastery level from where I’m from and some consider it extremely disrespectful to address a low level black belt as “master” when they have not attained the credentials to hold that title. So, in other words, anyone below a 5th degree cannot be and is not considered a master. Quite honestly as I am honored to be eligible to wear the red, its not a color I’ve ever been fond of.( with the exception of my belt) Instead I usually opt for black and in the case of wearing the black uniform its got to be the “Ironman” uniform from Century Martial Arts. The Ironman is the only uniform you’ll ever need as it doesn’t wear out.
I have read the freedom of movement and the hot weather in southern Japan influenced the creation of the gi with short sleeves. The farmers and fishermen of Okinawa are the ones who originally came up with the design. Those that trained in the arts in Okinawa realized that the uniforms needed to have longer sleeves for flowing movements and be able to function as sleeping garments for the colder weather in the northern locations of the country. Its easy to understand once you realize that training and possesing weapons was outlawed and practioners were forced to get their training in at night.
A gi is made up of a jacket, pants, and belt and in most cases is made of thin cotton or a thin cotton blend unless there is a function issue as stated above. The origin of colored belts is debated often and there are several ideas about where they originally came from. Some folks will cite Gichin Funafoshi as the one who created the belt system for Shotokan Karate. Master Funakoshi was the father of Shotokan and a pioneer in the art of Karate. Others suggest that once the unwashed gi was hung to dry and it became dirtier and dirtier the belt and gi would gradually become dingy and eventually black. I have also read stories that say you could spot a master due to him having a belt for so long it would eventually start to fray and become white again. Whether this is true or not, its a great story and one that speaks in volumes philosophically meaning the martial artist had been studying so long that their belt signified their apparent return to a beginners mind. Our function of a uniform may be different than someone else’s. For example I try to encourage my students to get the “snap” effect in the sleeve during a punch and a “snap” in the pant leg during a kick. When you hear that, you’ve really got something quite special!!!
Some arts dont have a gi or a uniform while others have many and walk a fine line to mcdojo land, which is a label(for or against) I care nothing about. Make sure you have a character worthy of your rank and/or uniform. I’m not much on flash and I’m not opposed to wearing street clothes to give a demo or teach a special class. For a formal class at a dojo I’m all about my uniform and belt. Informally speaking I like having the option. So, the art may require the significance of the uniform. However the self defense situation doesn’t care what you’re wearing. Certain types of Wing Chun know this and all types of Jeet Kune Do know this.
So, to wrap this up…the uniform can be a representation of all your hard work and devotion to honing your craft as is your belt rank. Keep in my mind, I am only referring to what we do at my school. If you have attained the rank of black belt and are wearing different types of uniforms associated with that rank or any other, you should be proud of what you’ve accomplished. But is your mindset right? Are you a black belt when you take off the uniform? Are you a martial artist when you aren’t in class? Do you carry yourself in a humble way with confidence? The way you conduct yourself in uniform should be the way you conduct yourself when you aren’t wearing it. The police officer doesnt stop being an officer once he/she is out of uniform. The uniform doesn’t make the artist as it is an extension. Its how you represent yourself as an artist that makes the difference. Embrace your art wholeheartedly and submerse yourself in your abilities and hard work. Have faith in the One who made you that made your accomplishments attainable.
A lot of times I have a subject in mind when I write these blogs and it always ends up going in a direction that I didn’t forsee. Respect is hard work. Confidence can be hard work. Self-esteem is hard work. Your belt rank is work. Effort is hard work. Getting back to what I was saying earlier about an undefined path. Initially I started this evening’s blog to downplay the uniform in a subtle way and quite frankly, in a not so subtle way( mainly due to the harassment I received as a kid going to demo’s with my teachers and classmates). But after everything I’ve written here I see that the uniform is something I wear and a martial artist is something that I am. The uniform comes with the territory. I am a black belt, its not just something I wear. I earned it. I still earn it every single day whether I have it in me or not because its my Shaolin Kempo. In the end I want my students to wear their clean uniform with pride. It means you’re working toward a goal. I want them to learn the right way to tie their belt. To have pride in their appearance. To care about what they’re doing because it matters. Because they matter. Because its their Shaolin Kempo too.