History of Uniforms

The History of the Judo-gi

The martial arts have been around for quite some time, so the cultures of its practitioners have played 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 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 system 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 Arnis 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 discrepancies 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 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 described what each ZMA belt means to him on another page of this site. You can view the descriptions following this link: Belt Descriptions 

The Symbolism of 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:

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 of uniforms that everyone is expected to wear, while others might not care in the slightest. This varies even between Zen Martial Arts schools. Traditionally in ZMA, students are expected to wear white uniforms until they achieve a black belt, which is their ticket to wearing an all-black uniform. Some ZMA black belts choose to wear other colors or opt to continue wearing their white uniform. In ZMAINW, Master Di Loreto's school, students are allowed to wear any color uniform they would like except for an all-black uniform, which is still reserved for black belts alone. Some people may choose to wear a color based on what looks and feels right to them, while others might use symbolism, similar to what Master Swartwood likes to describe:

Every martial artist should strive to represent all of the 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, and maybe discover instead what each color means to you personally.