Friday, 23 September 2011

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Frederick The Great's Uniform

Photograph, courtesy of Constanze Schweda

Frederick the Great

His uniform was a simple officer's suit, without trim or accoutrements to show, as a true philosopher, "that outward appearance means nothing".

Which made me think of a karate uniform and why we pull one on and why its appearance is simple. Is it to remind us, like Frederick's uniform, that outward appearance is not important? Everyone should be treated equally so there is no place for fine clothes: just a simple training suit which brings everyone to the same level. A uniform, by its definition, is the same for everyone so nobody can bring in any external symbology: everything is found in the simple, white suit. We are all there to train together, to sweat hard in a co-operative way.

On the other hand there is the belt system which reveals other areas of complexity. Superficially this shows only the rank within the style, reflecting how long the practitioner has been studying and how much of the syllabus they have covered. But we all know that underneath this simple ranking system lies quite a lot of posturing and unsaid desire! As a romantic I love the idea that the belt, originally white, would turn black from wear and grime showing that those with a 'black' belt were more experienced. Furthermore Masters' belts would, through use, change back to white, donating a return to a beginner's mindset within the art: a full circle.

I had a conversation with Harry Cook, a martial artist of certain renown about the way karate was instructed. He maintains that regimented training in karate along with grading and exams may have been institutionalised by the Japanese following contact with European armies in the 19th Century. He backed this up with references which I'm afraid I don't have, but he mentioned the more relaxed earlier training styles of the Okinawans: often un-uniformed and in 'backyard' lessons. Worth more thought and references I guess...