The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Uniforms in Martial Arts

Below is an excerpt from an article from Kung Fu Tea. The full post may be read here.

My Monday evening study-group just passes a milestone. Somehow it never even occurred to me that this was on the horizon, though I was the one who (inadvertently) set things in motion.  An acquaintance organizes a local street festival and she generously offered to give our group booth space and some time for small demonstrations. I accepted her offer and, as I was starting to pull things together, decided that we could really use some T-shirts. Nothing all that formal, just enough to let people know who we were.

Many martial arts communities have standardized, highly “traditional,” uniforms. The elements of the Chinese martial arts world that I spend most of my time with do not. The Wing Chun school where I did most of my training even managed to resist the social pressure to adopt a system of colored belts or sashes. The only formal ranks we have are student, assistant instructor and Sifu.  Likewise, we all trained in T-shirts and jogging pants.  Some people wore shirts with the school’s logo, often the mementos of a previous seminar or summer-camp.  The more vintage such a shirt was the more respect it commanded. But most people just wore random athletic clothing. Matching T-shirts were generally reserved for some sort of public event.

So, with a public event of my own on the horizon, it seemed high-time to order a bunch of shirts for my training group here in New York. That announcement unleashed a fair amount of enthusiasm and my students have spent the last few weeks designing images, selecting colors and comparison shopping for price quotes.  These shirts have taken on a much more complex set of meanings than simply being a way to signal who we are in a crowd.  In a way its all very predictable. Everyone in this group has been working hard for months, and the class is developing into a tight knit community. I suspect that all of this emotional energy has been invested into the process of buying these shirts.  I hope they end up looking great as they now have a lot to live up to!

All of this got me thinking about the role of uniforms in the martial arts, and the differences that we see between styles and communities. Why is the training gear in some arts more formalized than others?  What are they attempting to signal, and to who?  Where did our notions of the “proper” martial arts uniform come from, and why does it change over time?

I suspect that pretty much everyone who practices martial arts wears a uniform, even if they are not aware of it. This does not mean that all uniforms have the same meaning, or that they come from the same place. Indeed, there is a huge amount of variation in the social construction of training clothing. While my Sifu’s school never had any sort of rules about training clothing, it was clear that a well-understood informal dress-code was in effect.  Everyone wore nearly identical darkly colored T-shirts and jogging pants.  Nor are they alone in this. As I have gone to various seminars and visited multiple schools, that same unspoken dress code seems to have spread quite widely throughout the Wing Chun community.  From a sociological standpoint such a widely shared “uniform” is quite interesting, even if few of these communities would admit to having a “dress code.”

Still, it is the differences in the ways that schools approach this aspect of material culture that is truly revealing.  To simplify what is a complex topic, one might think of any uniform as occupying a distinct place within a theoretical cube defined by three axis.  The vertical axis might represent the question of centralization.  Is your uniform defined and enforced by a central authority (high), or is it more a matter of group culture (low)?

The front axis can be thought of representing a uniform’s symbolic vs. functional attributes. Victor Turner noted that most material artifacts have both a practical and symbolic value.  Both are always present, but possibly not in the same degree. The stylized helmets worn in Kendo suggest a high degree of practicality, whereas the stripes of colored tape that adorn the Taekwondo belts of my many nieces and nephews would seem to function only as motivational tools.

The back axis of our graph might be thought of as measuring the degree of individual expression that one sees in a uniform. They function as markers of community identity precisely because of their ability to make everyone appear “uniform.”  And yet they must also express more individual characteristics, such as one’s rank or position in a community. On one end of the spectrum these markers may be kept to an absolute minimum (perhaps just a belt color). On the other side of the spectrum we might find the highly personalized armor favored by various HEMA fighters, or the explosion of patches on some Kempo uniforms.  One might also think of this axis as a measure of the degree to which consumer power can be used to personalize one’s image within the fighting community.

Any of these uniforms can tell us, at a glance, where someone stands within the larger martial arts community. Kendo players do not look like silat students, and they all appear quite different from the guys who gather for “open mat night” at the local BJJ school.  Yet I suspect that if we think about these uniforms in terms of the three axis of analysis outlined above, we might come up with some unexpected hypothesis about the differing social needs and functions that each of these communities fulfills, based on the sorts of material culture they exhibit. Alternatively, we might take a single school and think about how its uniform conventions have changed over time as a way of understanding that style’s unique historical evolution.

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