June 13, 2024


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The Importance of Uniforms in the Martial Arts by KJN Ronald W. Stone

The Importance of Uniforms in the Martial Arts by KJN Ronald W. Stone

Let us for one moment consider the following conversation which takes place at an undisclosed military base.
“Hello General, Sir.”
“Oh, I'm not a General.”
“I'm sorry but I couldn't help but notice the two stars on your uniform and the Ranger patch. “
“That's right.  Looks great, doesn't it?”
 “Well, if you aren't a General in the Army Rangers what rank do you hold?”
“Oh me, I'm a private in the motor pool here.”
“Well, aren't you going to get into trouble because of stolen valor?”
“I don't think so. You see, I do self-identify as a special ops officer and after all, isn't what we think and feel all that's important?”

This story sounds funny right?  Well on a more serious note the same sort of thing takes place today in many martial arts schools across the country.

The martial arts of course historically derive from studies relating to combative training, and just like the military have their own sets of standards, ranks and appropriate uniforms.  Sadly however, for purposes of trying to impress others or to inflate their own status, many instructors are allowing the use of inappropriate uniforms in their classes.

In the Korean arts for example, a fourth dan master is awarded a white dobok (top) which has black cross hatched diamonds on it.  One look across the room and the master is instantly recognized with the respect he or she deserves.  Some schools, however, are now appearing on the internet proudly boasting videos of white belts precisely wearing this uniform.

Now imagine having worked decades for a specific rank only to find out that the symbols of your hard work which also highlight the respect you so rightfully deserve is being degraded by someone who simply likes the look and decides to wear them.

Imagine being in combat and hearing “Come on men let's follow that man with all the stars on his shoulders and see where he is headed.  By the time you find out he is a private in the motor pool it just may be too late.”

Uniforms may seem unimportant to those who don't understand or earn them, but nevertheless they do matter.  Imagine walking down a dark street at night in a bad neighborhood when you are suddenly confronted by two strangers, one wearing a hoodie with dirty jeans, and the second with a clean blue police-only issued uniform and a badge.  Which person makes you feel safer?  Sure, the hoodie guy might be an undercover cop, but maybe he isn't.  On the other hand, the person wearing the correct police uniform instinctively will make you feel more secure.

While I agree that the Marines don't fight in their dress blues, I can assure you that the dress blue uniform instills a sense of pride and distinction.  In a similar manner martial arts uniforms were designed to create recognition as well as to be practical for the specific arts they are used in.  Try practicing judo for example with a karate Gi and just see how long it takes before it rips. 

 Uniforms since they were first invented also gave recognition and pride to the wearers.  Try to imagine a Civil War battle where instead of Union blue and Rebel grey everyone was wearing the same-colored outfit.  Who would you shoot at?  And if you don't agree that uniforms create a sense of pride and accomplishment look for a Green Beret and tell him his cap looks silly and then see what happens.

Now if you want to teach one on one in private, then your decision on what to wear might not be as significant, but if you want to teach within a style, grow a school with instructors to help you with the curriculum, or post videos in public, then uniforms become a necessary function.

Just as military rank indicates who is in charge and what consequences there are for ignoring or bypassing the chain of command, wearing martial arts uniforms (including belt rank designation) allows the instructors to teach with some level of earned respect.  

While we all agree that respect is earned not just commanded, a newcomer to the school might not feel the same towards a fifty-year-old sitting around in a t shirt with a Walking Dead picture on it and dirty jeans as he might feel towards one wearing a correct rank uniform with a blackbelt.  He might not automatically have the same level of respect as he will later, but even a newcomer should recognize that to wear that uniform there had to be some degree of advanced level training.

This last point is important to understand the concept of uniform misappropriation.  Just as our stolen valor example, the adulteration of martial arts uniforms and fraudulent or invented belt ranks is doing irreputable harm to the arts.   Wearing the wrong uniform or belt rank for grade truly earned is a slap in the face to those who did really earn it and diminishes the true value of all of the work, instruction and good faith that went into it. 

Please remember do not confuse what is legal with what is moral, ethical, or even just.  The simple fact that it is not illegal to wear a grandmaster’s black dobok with red diamonds when you are only a third dan may not be illegal, but it is disrespectful to all those past and present who did obtain that rank through blood, sweat and tears.

In the privacy of your own place, it may not matter to you if your students train in hoodies and Bermuda shorts, but it is poor promotion for a martial arts school that wishes to be respected, to grow and to be part of a community.   On the other hand if you do not care about this, then do not ask yourself why your videos are being ridiculed by others in the same style or art.

About the author: R.W. Stone is currently a practicing veterinarian in Central Florida. He is an avid horseman, a master ranked martial artist, a best-selling western author, and a firearms enthusiast. After joining a martial arts school in 1970 Stone started studying Yudo with a Korean grandmaster. He eventually became a member of the Judo team of the University of Illinois. It was at the University that a Korean classmate and friend introduced him to Tae Kwon do. After graduating veterinary college, he found the martial arts becoming too sports oriented and eventually after moving from Miami to Central Florida he sought out a Hapkido grandmaster. Currently Stone is ranked 8th dan in Haemukwan Hapkido, a 4th dan in Daehan Yudo and a second dan in Kukki Taekwondo. He is the Hapkido instructor at the American Dragon Martial Arts Academies.

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