One of the most distinct visual markers of a martial arts student is their gi uniform. These fighting robes are iconic symbols of the martial arts world, and seeing someone wear one back and forth to practice may be the only indicator you ever get that they’re even a fighter.
The gi in martial arts is a uniform that comes in various different fabrics, colors, and textures. The color of a martial arts gi is used to symbolize rank or fighting style. Certain types of martial art gi are also picked for their historical significance.
If you’re getting started in martial arts and not sure what type of gi to purchase, you’re not alone. There are so many types of gi these days that it can be confusing which is the best one to choose for your fighting style. Read on to learn more about the different martial arts gi and how they’re designed.
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What Is a Gi in Martial Arts?
In martial arts, a gi is a two-piece uniform martial artists wear to train, practice, and compete in sparring. These uniforms are designed to fit loosely to allow the fighter to maintain agility in the ring.
As a defining word, gi is attached to each individual martial art as a suffix that denotes the type of uniform worn by those fighters. For example, a karategi is a uniform worn by karate students, while a judogi is worn by judo students. The word “-gi” means “to wear” in Japanese.
In many ways, a gi is similar to a school uniform. Some martial arts schools wear specific gi that can help set them apart from other schools, especially in large tournaments. Originally, these uniforms were designed to emulate the traditional clothes worn on the island of Okinawa in Japan, where the art of karate originated.
Along with making it easier for martial arts students to move in combat, the gi uniform serves as a point of nostalgia and tradition in most martial arts schools. It’s the most obvious indicator to the outside world that a person has been trained in combat, and many students wear their gi with pride.
The History of Martial Arts Gi
The gi that is seen almost universally in martial arts in modern society actually originated in a single art – the art of judo. When karate was first demonstrated outside of Okinawa by Gichin Funakoshi, the father of modern Shotokan karate, he still wore the judogi traditionally worn by judo masters. (Source: Shotokan Karate of America)
While karate masters in Japan originally used judogi, fighters soon realized that the thicker, heavier fabrics needed for grappling moves in judo were not a good match for the agility needed in karate. As a result, lighter uniforms with a smoother texture were developed for upright fighting styles.
Martial artists originally tried to fight in traditional cotton kimonos, but the fabric of these garments was too light compared to the thick dockworker’s material that judogi was constructed of. Karate students found themselves ripping their uniforms in combat.
Here are a few other factors that influenced the development of martial arts gi:
- Climate: Several popular types of martial arts were developed in parts of the world such as Japan where the weather is hot and humid. This led to the development of light fighting fabrics that would keep martial artists from getting overheated during training.
- Fighting style: Judogi and grappling-style uniforms are often formed from a thicker, heavier-textured fabric than other types of gi. This is to help protect these martial artists when they’re grappling with holds on the ground.
- Tradition: Fighting styles that originated with the samurai class, such as the sword fighting art of kendo, favor uniforms that call back to the clothing styles of those ancient warriors. In comparison, karate is designed around regular Okinawan streetwear since karate was invented by peasants who were no longer allowed to carry swords.
Gi have been around for hundreds of years, and each style is slightly different depending on the needs of individual martial arts styles and their histories.
What Does the Gi Symbolize in Martial Arts?
While gi have a practical purpose in protecting fighters when they’re practicing and sparring, there are deeper meanings to wearing the gi as well. After all, when a martial artist is outside of their uniform, they’re still just as effective in a fight.
Gi of all styles and colors also symbolize other grander things in martial arts. Here are some of the things that gi symbolize in martial arts no matter their type:
- Discipline and honor: When a martial artist wears their gi both in and outside of the dojo, it is meant to remind them of their responsibilities as a fighter.
- Common cause: When all the students in a dojo wear the same style and color of gi, it unites them as a single fighting force. This helps promote camaraderie within the school and helps instill community among them. (Source: Karate for Kids)
- Identity: The color and style of a martial artist’s gi make them stand out from other martial artists, especially the color of their belt. The belt is the most important part of a martial arts gi since it is typically used to denote a fighter’s ranking.
A gi isn’t just about making it easier for a martial artist to move in the dojo and the sparring ring. It’s also about reminding them why they’re there in the first place.
Do the Colors in Martial Arts Gi Have Meaning?
If you begin to study martial arts, one of the first things you may notice is that you’ll see many different colors of martial arts gi is worn depending on which fighting style you’re observing. Sometimes these colors have specific meanings according to the traditions of that fighting style, and other times the color of a gi is chosen for aesthetics only.
The Meaning of a White Gi
The white gi is the most commonplace color of gi seen and is most commonly worn by beginner students in various martial arts schools. Traditionally, the white color of the gi is meant to symbolize purity and truth. Since these are virtues that are extolled by practically every martial arts school in the world, this makes white uniforms universally appealing.
Some martial arts students might immediately gravitate towards other gi colors once they’re no longer a novice, and modern gi are as likely to be blue or black as they are to be white.
However, there is also a practical reason for white gi which explains their adoption by so many martial arts schools. You can easily see when a white gi is dirty, which allows martial arts instructors to inspect student gi and hold them to a standard of hygiene. Darker gi may be reworn when dirty and can hide bacteria. (Source: Montesano Spine & Sport)
Enforcing snow-white, clean gi is for the reputation of the dojo. It’s also for the safety of the martial artists themselves since skin infections and other problems can develop from wearing a dirty gi. Not to mention that bad hygiene makes it unpleasant for other fighters in the dojo since a dirty gi will stink of sweat, blood, and dirt.
The Meaning of a Blue Gi
Blue gi are a uniform that is most commonly seen in judo dojos, but there are blue gi worn in other martial arts as well.
While judogi were originally white like karategi, the blue gi began to show up in the 1980s as a way for sparring opponents to be easily distinguished from each other in the ring. One opponent will wear blue and the other will wear white, making it easier for referees to watch their movements in combat. (Source: SportsRec)
Before adopting the blue gi in judo, it was customary in Japanese martial arts competitions for one opponent to tie a red sash around their belt to help tell them from their opponent. But multiple gi colors turned out to be a simpler option for complicated martial arts tournaments.
The Meaning of a Red Gi
The red gi is a uniform that is favored by students of the Russian martial art sambo. A sambo tournament is where you’re most likely to see this striking gi color on more than one person.
While the instructors of some other martial arts schools will wear a red gi to help distinguish themselves from the students in their class, this isn’t a customary choice for any particular fighting style. White, blue, and black are much more popular choices. Outside of sambo, red is one of the most uncommon colors of gi you’re likely to see.
The Meaning of a Black Gi
The black gi is an increasingly popular color choice for all martial artists, but they aren’t allowed in every dojo. Many students may choose a black gi for the ninja-like aesthetics of the uniform without taking into consideration that black gi usually needs special laundering just like a white gi to prevent it from fading to a dirty gray color over time.
An advantage of black gi is that they don’t show stains as easily, so you won’t spend as much time in the laundry room trying to pretreat spots or discolorations to keep your gi snow-white. However, you should still wash your black gi regularly if you want to avoid unpleasant smells and bacterial infections.
Historically, black gi are associated with the martial art ninjutsu. The color black was chosen for these uniforms because traditional ninjas were guerrilla soldiers required to use stealth and intimidation to get around their enemies. Rather than symbolizing the purity of the dojo, black gi are meant to symbolize that the martial arts are a war craft.
Because of this somewhat negative association with “dishonorable” fighting tactics, Japanese and Okinawan fighting tournaments still will not allow martial artists to wear a black gi in formal competition. (Source: Kenpo Notes) In this way, black gi are treated similarly to the “black knight” trope in Western fighting traditions.
Is It Disrespectful to Wear a Black Gi?
Since there are some somewhat negative associations tied to black gi, does that make them inappropriate to wear in the dojo?
The answer in modern martial arts is not really. While traditionally black gi may be associated with war, the color black is more aesthetically pleasing to many martial artists. Outside of competition, some schools may let you wear a gi of any color you wish.
Other Gi Colors Seen in Martial Arts
Thanks to new uniform manufacturing processes, white, blue, black, and red are not the only colors of gi that you’re likely to see in the training ring. Here are a few other popular colors that gi come in:
Before you invest in a gi as a new martial artist, you need to check with your dojo’s uniform requirements. Each martial arts school has slightly different rules when it comes to an acceptable uniform for training and sparring, so you don’t want to invest in an expensive uniform you can’t even use.
Karategi and Karate Uniforms
Compared to gi from other martial arts, the gi used in karate are designed to emphasize mobility and speed in combat. These uniforms are adapted from the heavier, more restrictive uniforms adopted by judo fighters.
The most popular type of fabric used in karategi is a light cotton canvas fabric that is loose enough to allow for freedom of movement, but strong enough to avoid becoming tattered through regular sparring and laundering.
An advantage of going with a heavier karategi over a lighter one is that lighter karetegi tend to cling to the body with sweat after prolonged exertion, hindering the martial artist’s movement and making them feel overheated. A heavier gi can pull moisture away from the skin and improve ventilation, allowing the martial artist to cool off more quickly.
There are three main cuts of uniform for karategi:
- Japanese style: The Japanese style of gi features shorter sleeves and pant legs than other styles of gi. This is intended to allow for more agility in the ring.
- European style: The European style of gi is more formal and has longer sleeves and pant legs, with a shorter lapel than the Japanese style.
- Kata style: The Kata gi style features the shortest sleeves and pant legs out of all traditional karategi. These uniforms are less common than Japanese or European gi and are usually chosen for aesthetics over function.
Judogi and Judo Uniforms
Judogi, also known as keikogi, is a traditional type of training uniform for the art of judo that was designed by the founding judo master Jigoro Kano. (Source: KuSakuri) These gi are heavier and thicker than the ones seen in karate or other upright fighting styles since they have to hold up under grappling conditions.
There are only two colors of judogi that are available: blue and white. This is because the manufacture of judo uniforms is strictly regulated by the International Judo Federation (IJF). (Source: Fighter’s Market)
Jiu-Jitsugi and Jiu-Jitsu Uniforms
The gi worn in Japanese jiu-jitsu is slightly different from the gi worn by karate students. Japanese jiu-jitsugi are a variation of keikogi, and look more like a judo gi than a karate gi since jiu-jitsu is also a grappling style with a lot of groundwork.
The gi worn in Brazilian jiu-jitsu are modeled after the gi worn in Japan and other areas of the East. This means you’re unlikely to be able to distinguish between a Brazilian jiu-jitsu artist and a traditional Japanese jiu-jitsu artist.
Aikidogi and Aikido Uniforms
Aikido is a specialized and somewhat uncommon form of martial arts compared to karate and judo, but this fighting style still has its own variation of gi. The modern-day aikidogi was designed from traditional judo uniforms in the 1960s, making it a relatively new addition to the world of martial arts uniforms.
The development of gi for Aikido has progressed somewhat differently than in other martial arts. Because Aikido is not a competitive sport, it doesn’t have uniform sponsors that some of the other martial arts organizations have that drive the development of new uniform styles.
As a result, the uniform of Aikido has not undergone serious changes in over fifty years since it was originally designed.
Kendogi and Kendo Uniforms
If you’ve ever seen a kendo tournament, or a tournament of Japanese sword fighting, one of the first things you may notice is that the gi worn by kendo artists looks much different than the gi you’re probably used to seeing on karate and judo students.
Rather than wearing the trousers common in karategi and judogi, kendo students wear a uniform that looks more similar to the Japanese hakama, a traditional type of Japanese clothing that goes back to the sixth century in medieval Japan.
These special loose pants are designed to be tied at the waist and are meant to call back to the days when martial arts were practiced almost exclusively by the samurai class and Japanese nobility. (Source: Aikido Notes)
How to Choose a Martial Arts Gi
Choosing a martial arts gi can be intimidating if you’ve never had to select a uniform before. There are many different factors you need to take into consideration since a high-quality gi can be expensive and they can also sometimes be difficult to return if they don’t fit properly.
Here are a few important tips for choosing your martial arts gi for the first time:
- Check with your dojo for restrictions. Many martial arts training schools have specific gi and gi colors that they prefer students to wear during official practice, sparring, and competition. You don’t want to get an off-color gi only to not be allowed to wear it inside the dojo. Some dojos prefer that all beginner students wear white exclusively.
- Choose a higher-quality, 100% cotton gi. While these uniforms are usually more expensive than lighter gi and require more care during laundering to make sure they don’t shrink, an all-cotton gi will be more durable and comfortable than a gi that incorporates polyester blends. (Source: Martial Arts Equipment Direct)
- Basic white is classic. You might feel drawn to black gi or colored gi due to personal aesthetics, but as a new martial arts student, you want to draw as little attention to yourself as possible. White is a great color to start out with for your first gi. You can always invest in a second colored gi later when you’ve advanced in your studies.
- Get your gi tailored. Martial arts students can get precise measurements when ordering their gi, but their uniforms often still require a little hemming or other adjustments to have a perfect fit.
- For child martial artists, leave room to grow. When gi are purchased for children, they are sometimes purchased slightly large so that the children can grow into them due to the expense of purchasing new uniforms. To adjust for the extra length in the interim, the uniform sleeves and trousers should be rolled up during practice.
- Invest in some good detergent and laundry accessories. You’ll want to launder your gi separately from other clothing to prevent it from becoming stained in the wash, and you may need to treat it for stains and discoloration between dojo sessions.
- Buy more than one uniform. Gi may be expensive, but it can be a serious hassle to have to constantly wash and rewash your single uniform for practice if you attend a dojo more than once a week. Not washing your gi between practices can lead to body odor and a hygiene issue, so it must be done regardless.
All gi have to be taken care of a little differently than other clothing so that they continue to look good and hold up in the sparring ring. Keeping white gi looking spotless can be a challenge, but the end result is a dojo of students that looks professional and proud.
Gi Are Symbolic of the Larger Martial Arts Tradition
No matter which color or style of gi you end up buying, it’s important for you to take good care of it and always show up at the dojo looking clean and put together. Every time you put on your gi, you’re representing centuries of tradition and discipline far beyond the scope of your own training.