As is often the case, form indicates function. The origin and history of the karate gi is no different. The style and materials of the garment are intertwined with its tangible usage and cultural significance.
Origins of Karate
Karate-do, meaning "way of the empty hand," traces its roots to the southern Japanese island of Okinawa. The weaponless fighting style fused techniques from Chinese Ch'uan Fa (Kung Fu) with indigenous Okinawan skills. Philosophically, karate is embedded in the teachings and ways of Zen Buddhism.
Origins of the Karate Gi
The karate gi derived its style and attributes out of necessity. Freedom of movement and comfort in the hot sun of southern Japan influenced karate gi's inception. The light materials, slightly shortened sleeves/pants and robe-like design, mirrors the lifestyle of those who invented it--the farmers and fishermen of Okinawa. Likewise, a theory suggests the gi served a dual purpose of sorts, ultimately lending to its style. It is thought that Imperial political pressures outlawing the possession of weapons in 13th-century Okinawa forced martial art practitioners to train at night. In that, the gi not only provided fluidity of movement, but it could quickly double as sleeping garments in case authorities encroached upon the training session. As karate spread and grew throughout all of Japan in the 20th century, slightly heavier materials and longer sleeves were introduced to make the clothing functional for karate students in colder, northern parts of the country.
Although multiple styles and creators of karate techniques were developed (and continue to develop today), Okinawan Gichin Funakoshi, (1886 to 1957), is credited as the "grandfather of modern karate." He and his son, Yoshitaka, were the first to broaden and build the influence of the fighting style throughout mainland Japan.
Karate Gi Components and Materials
A karate gi is comprised of jacket, pants and belt. In most cases, a gi is made of cotton or a cotton-polyester blend (poly cotton) and is relatively thin and lightweight to allow for breath-ability during training. However, heavier drill cotton or canvas is often used for functional and/or aesthetic purposes. For example, a karate practitioner involved in grappling or throwing opponents (wherein judo techniques are incorporated) might require a heavier fabric for durability. Similarly, a heavier fabric promotes the "snapping" sound, which creates a good impression on judges at competitions or with senseis during grade-level tests. White is the traditional and most common gi color, but some specific styles of karate utilize all or partial black jackets/pants. Also, depending on rank and particular dojo rules, varying colors (e.g., red, blue, brown, green, yellow and more) are used in karate gi color schemes.
Belts, Rank and a Dirty Gi
As karate students advance and pass grade level tests, different-colored belts mark the progress. Ranking and belt color schemes vary from school to school and system to system, but where the notion of this colorful ranking system derived is still debated. A widely held view attributes it to post-WWII, depression-era Japan, wherein the process of hand-dying belts from white, eventually to black, elicited the original ranked color scheme of Funakoshi's shotokan karate (i.e., white, blue, red, orange, yellow, green, purple, brown and black). However, it has also been suggested that a Japanese dojo custom--when the unwashed gi is hung to dry after the training session and begins to develop a stained yellowish-brown tint--that this stained look signifies a skilled practitioner as the gi, as well as the belt, becomes dirtier.