The History of Uniforms and the Symbolism of Colors

Table of contents:

The History of the Judo-gi

The martial arts have been around for quite some time, so the culture of its practitioners can play a massive role in shaping the traditions and symbolism behind our martial practices.  The martial arts uniforms we wear have their own history. The particular style of uniform we wear, which resembles a Japanese kimono adapted to be more durable, was first used by practitioners of the martial arts style called Judo for its practicality. These uniforms are often more commonly associated with the style of Karate, though. There is a reason for this. Back in the 1920s when the Okinawans first introduced their traditional Karate to Japan, the Japanese provided the instructors with Judo-gis to wear during their demonstrations. Prior to this, the practice of Karate had nothing to do with these uniforms, but as the popularity of the style increased throughout the Japanese mainland, the art style of Karate and the use of Judo-gis became inseparable. As a result, the uniforms are also commonly called Karate-gis. The first part of the name refers to the martial art style and the second part, "gi," is the Japanese character for "uniform." At this time, the colors had very little significance. The only two belt colors worn over the Judo-gis were white and black, one for the new students to wear and the other for students with more experience. This made it easier to split up the two groups based on their proficiency when it was desirable.

 

The Development of Curriculum

As time progressed, martial arts schools of all styles saw the benefit of adding a curriculum to their teachings, allowing for students to take their training one step at a time instead of being expected to learn everything all at once. This introduced the concept of levels, with students earning their way to the next level before receiving their next set of tasks. These levels were split into two groups, Kyū and Dan. Those with white belts work their way through the Kyū system, generally starting at 5th-10th kyū depending on the school and working their way down to 1st kyū. After completing their last set of tasks, they were promoted to 1st dan and allowed to wear a black belt during practice. Black belts would be promoted up the dan ranks when they had enough achievements to show for it. These achievements could be related to teaching, competing, developing, or anything else deemed worthy by their instructors.

The Martial Arts Adopted by America

When the Eastern-Asian martial arts were introduced to America, they became an instant hit and were promoted by many "kung fu" movies that featured martial artists such as Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris. People's desire to learn martial arts began spreading rapidly throughout the country and instructors, both qualified and unqualified, decided to capitalize on that. Karate was the dominating style and as a result, wearing the Judo style uniform became very widespread and cross-disciplined, eventually being adopted by other styles such as Taekwondo, Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, and more.

The Introduction of Color Belt Systems

Americans were not content with the two belt system, deciding they wanted to award their students something more tangible with each promotion. Hence, the concept of the color belt systems was born. Over time, almost every martial arts instructor in America developed a color belt system to represent different levels within their school's curriculum. One thing that remained consistent, though, was that almost every curriculum was a journey from having a white belt to having a black belt. This resulted in the black belt becoming somewhat idealized. The belt color is sought after by many martial arts practitioners, some considering it their end goal in the martial arts. Over time, color belt systems became standard not just in America, but throughout every modern martial art style across the world.

The Creation of the Zen Martial Arts

The Zen Martial Arts was a style founded by Grandmaster Yip and Grandmaster Miller as a way to bring together their expertise in Karate, Taekwondo, and Judo, passing on all of it to their students through a single curriculum. This new style was developed over the years, eventually adopting Wing Chun and Escrima practices as well through Grandmaster Stillwagon's influence. This became the foundation of the Zen Martial Arts we practice today. The Zen Martial Arts schools independently have some discrepancy in their curriculums due to the schools' relative instructors all adapting it to fit their needs, but we all recognize each other as a single martial arts family and delight in our shared legacy. The Zen Martial Arts School of Tarnu is a child of the Zen Martial Arts style, upholding all of the Zen Martial Arts practices while also including content from Master Swartwood's expertise in Jiu-jitsu.

The Symbolism of Different Belt Colors

Strictly speaking, because belt colors only serve to represent the level you are at in the particular curriculum you are following, there are no standard meanings behind the different color belts you may wear. However, Master Swartwood has written poetic descriptions for each belt in both the Zen Martial Arts and ZMA Tarnu belt systems. You can view the poetic descriptions following one of these links, whichever one suits the belt curriculum you are studying in:

The Symbolism on Uniforms in the Martial Arts

While martial arts uniforms were traditionally nothing more than durable outfits, they are now a canvas for those interested in displaying relevant information and symbolism on their uniforms. Each location on a uniform is generally used for a particular purpose, which I will now detail:

  • On the chest left of the lapel or on the right arm:
    These locations are generally used to display the symbol or patch of the martial arts school you are affiliated with. If your instructor provides you with a patch, you should put it on the chest of your gi left of the lapel. If your instructor provides you with two patches, one representing the school your instructor is from and the other representing the school you are currently training in, you wear the first one on your chest left of the lapel and the second one on your right arm.

  • On the chest right of the lapel:
    This location is dedicated to the style in which you train and often has the name of the style embroidered directly onto the uniform, generally in Chinese, Japanese, or Korean characters.

  • On the left arm:
    This location is dedicated to any rank beyond the belt system that you might have, such as a specific title or a patch representing your role as an instructor. It is also sometimes used for a country's flag, such as the American flag for American tournament competitors.

  • On the lapel itself:
    This location is where you might place a motto, phrase, or word that is particularly important to you.

  • On the back:
    This location is sometimes used for names, like on a sports jersey, or advertising a particular school or team. It is not very common to see any symbolism here, though.

  • On the very bottom of the lapel or just to the left of it:
    This location is rarely used, but it isn't unheard of to include embroidery of an additional patch in this location. This spot is generally used by uniform manufacturers to display the label of their brand.

None of these are rules and you will always be able to find exceptions to these generalities, but this can serve as a nice guide if you are looking into decorating your uniform. Sometimes any or all of these spots will already be filled by the manufacturer of the uniform you purchased.

 

The Symbolism of Different Color Uniforms

Different schools have many different policies related to the color uniforms you wear. Some schools have standard colors and styles that everyone is expected to wear, while others might not care in the slightest. This varies even between Zen Martial Arts schools. At Zen Martial Arts Int. NW, Master Di Loreto's school, students are expected to wear white uniforms until they earn their black belt, which is when they can choose to wear any color. The most common choice is an all-black uniform, though some ZMA black belts choose to wear other colors or opt to continue wearing their white uniform. However, in the Zen Martial Arts School of Tarnu, Master Swartwood's school, the policy on uniforms resembles that of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, where students can choose to wear whatever color uniform they want. Because of the Brazilian Jiu-jitsu influence on this, the symbolism of the different uniform colors is that of BJJ:

  • White: The Color of the Challenger
    Symbolizes your readiness to learn and a recognition of the growth that can be achieved by taking challenges head-on.

  • Blue: The Color of the Guardian
    Symbolizes the desire to protect yourself and those around you both inside and outside of your martial arts training.

  • Red: The Color of the Warrior
    Symbolizes dedication and perseverance through any hardship one might face. Hardships can come in a variety of forms, so it often means something different for each person wearing this color.

  • Gray: The Color of the Skeptic
    Symbolizes the practitioner's desire to understand the purpose of their discipline, which often starts with a recognition of the difference between martial arts techniques and true combatives.

  • Black: The Color of the Wise
    Symbolizes the wisdom one gains through experience and deep questioning of all that they know.

Every martial artist should strive to represent all of the five roles listed above, so what color you choose to wear does not have to dictate the martial artist you will become. Most practitioners just choose whatever color they like best or feel will look good on them. It can be a fulfilling and fun exercise, though, to recognize the symbolism of the colors you might wear during your training.​