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Brett Fletcher
Brett Fletcher's writings are influenced by ancient sacred texts as well as a variety of esoteric works. Articles

Martial Art Uniforms and Belt Ranking

Rick Gil

The Martial Art Uniform

Clothing, of course, was made since stone-age man, and it is still used for the protection of the body. Since man, or woman, learned to fabricate clothing from spinning and looming, it was made per particular environment, era, and events. Fabric of clothes varied from that of the availability of raw materials used to produce the garments. Designs and patterns of clothes varied from different regions of weather conditions and continent-to-continent. Clothing also became symbolic to identify a class of individuals from another. Subsequently, the more expensive the fabric, dye color, and labor intense, the more expensive was the product cost. To be clothed in expensive garments is to demonstrate a high-social status.

To symbolize strength of status and professionalism, clothes were replicated to exact systematic colors and patterns. These replicated garments were exactly alike, except for differences in each wearer’s size. These clothes became known as uniforms. The word “uniform” is to unify or have alike and systematic. Uniformed clothing was at first designed for war. Other than the armor type, uniforms demonstrated strength from vast numbers.

In the Orient, so too was clothing made to fit within the environment, era, and events. Because of human nature, the human social pattern of distinguishing a class/group of persons from the next developed different types of garments. As with the European counterparts, Oriental clothing was also made for war, royalty, and the mass lower classes. In modern society, it is quite the same. However, unlike the Orient, modern society has developed specialized clothing for exercise and/or training. Oriental training clothes were generally old or used garments because they were lastly used when new and replaceable ones were made and worn for daily use.

The pajama style martial art uniform is patterned on ancient and abundantly used Oriental clothing. Such patterns and fabric were simplistic and easy to produce. It is also interesting to note, clothing of such patterns, fabric, and dyes, are still made and worn by lower class people in certain Oriental regions today, or in modern times. One only has to watch or research any media source, i.e. news, theatre, and printed material. Three lingual translations of the martial art uniform are:

Japanese-“Gi” Korean-“Do-Bok” Chinese/Mandarin “Yi-Fu”

Because of the different manufacturing uses of labor and material, martial art uniforms slightly differ in durability and color. For the most part, there are two common colors, which are basic black or white. In addition, the patterns almost never change. The basic pattern is a pair of trousers and a jacket-style top. The trousers do not have belt loops or pockets. The jacket-style top is usually long-sleeved and depending on the oriental region, a robe-crossed or “pull-over” type. Being patterned after lower class clothing, long sleeved jackets/tops were such to protect the arms from outdoor weather conditions. A piece of rope, or folded and stitched fabric is used as a belt or sash intended to hold up the trousers and keep the jacket/top closed and maintained.

The uniform should never be worn outside the martial art school. It should never be worn prior to coming into the front entrance. Nor should it be worn leaving the school. It should not be worn outside practice as an event costume. This is to avoid outside ridicule and harassment from others who do not practice. Often it is noticed that students from other martial art schools are still clothed in their uniforms while running or moving about supermarkets, restaurants, and shopping stores. If they are not careful, a student will meet with another of same age/academic or other common ground outside of martial art training. In other words they would meet someone they know that does not train. That some else would later ridicule or harass the martial art student. And if it is not the same someone, then someone else in their academic class or residential neighborhood that learned about it will.

Before practice, students will change into their uniforms in the designated area. After practice the students will change back into their regular clothes. After which, the students will orderly return to the training floor and fold their uniform neatly as instructed. The uniform, or any of its components are not allowed to drag on the floor. On occasion, per belt tying, is a particular piece of the belt be allowed to touch, but not dragged on the floor. The uniform should be clean and virtually wrinkle-free before practice. A little extra effort, such as ironing, will show great care and pride to wear the uniform.

Folding and/or caring of the uniform could almost be considered as a separate art form. Known as “Dogu” (pronounced “dough-go”), the technique to fold the uniform started as a method to package it, and its components. This is because modern gym bags were not available. Although the term “Dogu”, could be applied to any such activity. “Dogu”, simply translates as “tools of the way”. Its meaning and the spirit behind it apply to any serious and traditional martial art, regardless of any national origin, style, or culture. Since the uniform is a “tool of the way”, it is termed as “Dogu”. “Dogu” is classified under another term, which is “reishiki”, which means “etiquette”.

As with any other professional uniform, the martial art uniform should be worn only when necessary. The martial art uniform should never be bedizening to the point of meretriciousness. Westerners (a term used to describe Occidentals) have produced multiple colors, odd patterns such as stars, stripes, and swirls for flair. The martial art uniform, in the commercial aspect, had become sartorial in such the case of showmanship. One or two emblems, name, or status may be suitable, but too many emblems, patchwork, patterns, and print work are not considered to be in discernment. In most circumstances, one mon, (emblem or insignia) is plenty. Too many emblems/patchwork gives the appearance of a uniform that emulates a walking quilt. In relation to multiple colors and etc., these may seem noticeable, but just as noticeable as a marching band member without their musical instrument.

A noticeable observance to anyone that has taken the time to think is; modern day martial artists seem to be occupied by ego to dress up in “Halloween Costumes”, while essentially all of the venerable traditional martial art masters and instructors wear simple and plain white or black uniforms. On another note: venerable traditional martial art masters and instructors wear a faded or ragged belt and view it only as a mere belt. Only on a rare occasion, such as ceremonial, a master and/or instructor wear a uniform that is a little different and more formal in appearance. The martial art uniform is for heavy workout and not for heavy display.

In terms of heavy workout, modern society developed exercise or training garments so that it will save wear and tear on those worn everyday. Also, training clothes are made to be more comfortable than clothing worn on a daily basis. To perform exceptionally well in training, besides comfortably, training clothes have to be durable. Some styles or systems of martial arts do not have the classic, “robe-type” uniform. Instead, a plain pair of exercise “sweat pants” with a T-shirt is substituted. To keep within an order of uniformity, the color or type of sweat pants and T-shirt could be worn systematically by those in practice.

With this type of clothing, availability and longevity is far easier than to special order new traditional-style uniforms. If one really wants a heavy physical workout, why should one be mentally preoccupied on how is one’s appearance? The traditional uniform has its place, per ceremonial, formal, and perhaps most of all, motivational confidence. Uniformed clothing has distinguishable characteristics that help develop motivation, pride, uniqueness, and respect. For uniqueness, pride, and motivation, training clothes should also be uniformed. For the previous reasons, uniformed martial art training clothes were developed and are now commonly used.


The belt is now considered a ranking status by color variations. What most martial artists do not know or realize, is that the belt was never intended to display an order of rank. Most tales, stories told, in Japan, years after World War II, the art and sport of Judo became increasingly popular. Judo is a Japanese martial art of throwing and grappling. Similar to wrestling, it was designed to be less aggressive and utilize a sportsman conduct. Rules and regulations were developed. When the Olympics were re-introduced after the war, the Japanese wanted Judo to be an Olympic sport. Under stipulations of the Olympic committee, Judo practitioners had to show status of skills so that the sport would not be unfair and dominated by already-practicing judo experts. Upon observation of Judo classes, beginners wore a fresh, clean whiten belt and it was believed that the experts wore a darker, or “blacken” belt.

In logic deduction, the original whiten belt was rarely washed, for it was not an intentional important significance of the uniform. Thus, over a period of time the “white” color of the belt began to soil and gradually darken to a near black color. However, given that Orientals and martial artists are hygiene conscious, it will seem unlikely that they would allow any piece of garment go unwashed.

This light-to-dark belt-ranking concept was replaced by a color spectrum over the years and the colorization is thought to be an American concept. Basically true, America has always had garments of color in comparison to other countries. Soon, just about the entire Asiatic martial arts adapted the color-ranking system. But unlike the West (America), Oriental arts do not have too many colors in their ranking order. The belt or belt color should not be used to display skill. The levels of proficiency that differs from one practitioner to another and one martial art system to another cannot accurately justify skill by the mere colorization of a belt.

In other words, a lower- ranking practitioner with a better proficiency or from another martial art system can and would defeat a higher-ranking opponent with lower proficiency or different martial art system. In another example; a “street-fighter” (person who has aggressive and urban survival skills) that is not belt-ranked, could defeat a person that has a black belt rank, or other.

Or if someone received his or her black belt rank, in two years, be defeated by someone with a much lower rank, but have training of three years from another martial art. The question is “What’s in a belt?” In addition, most Asiatic martial arts practiced in the Orient do not award black belt or high-ranking status to students less than five years of training. And certainly no such rank or status is awarded unto juvenile students. The concept is logical. The average level of proficient skill is many years of practice. Juveniles cannot be bestowed such a responsible high-ranking status which they themselves do not have full responsibility of their own actions and lifestyle.

In terms of Kung Fu, (a term used as a misnomer for Chinese Chuan Fa), virtually all of the traditional styles or systems are not pretentious. Especially on any idea of certification by paper stationary and colorful belts around the waist use to symbolize rank. A purist Chuan Fa instructor and practitioner will never be allowed to follow the “color belt ranking system”. Although some in America are vainglory and disperse into that egotistical rank fad. Chuan Fa instructors and practitioners should try to remain disparate from other martial art styles.

Basically, if it were not for the American attitude for an instantaneous delectation, in the symbolic sense, the belt ranking system would have faded as the color of the soiled belt used many times over. If a practitioner is absorbed with the ranking order or rank status of a martial art, that practitioner could never be considered as a martial artist with true esteem. True esteem is not found in an object, but in the mind, heart, and soul of the very nature of the art and its practitioners. If a particular art offers ranking, does the ranking have a monetary value also? If so, than it could be just as easy (in some actual cases) be paid for which could lead into a presuppose manner. Also, any rank that was paid for by a monetary method, does it still have the same value and quality of such that was not? If such rank did have a monetary value, how could there be an affix cost to someone’s personal accomplishment? What should be a reality is that the belt was designed to hold up the trousers and not to hold up an egocentric attitude of pomposity.

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