During the 70s and 80s, it became fashionable for some Kempo instructors to propagate the myth of white and black gi. That myth will be discussed below. Prior to judo, there was no gi. With the wide spread interest in Karate-do, the bleached white karate-gi became very common.
The Hawaiians developed use of the black gi to distinguish them from karateka. One of the primary arts using the black gi was Kosho Ryu Kempo (Mitose’s art), which later was popularized as Kajukenbo. The karate-gi has no relation to the robes of Shaolin monks. They are two different cultures with two different modes of dress.
If you take the TV series “Kung Fu” as a credible source, the young boys wore black clothes. The older initiates wore white and black clothes. Once they passed the 108 Chamber Room, they could wear the orange robes of the monk. But I warn you that it may not be credible. A better source would be a book on the actual Shaolin Temples. Just remember, a Chinese-artist doesn’t wear a karate-gi.
The modern Kempo myth says the first few ranks are representative of being outside the Temple walls. The new student is trying to earn membership into the actual Temple. Once they enter into the “Temple” for real training, they can don the “black” gi. It’s quite a cute tale, but it’s not accurate.
The school’s chief instructor gets to choose what color uniform (or style) the students wear based solely on their preferences. Some prefer the “gung fu” uniform with turtle buttons. Others may opt for the XMA sleeveless uniform. Most prefer karate-gi colored black. A few enterprising schools use army battle dress uniforms or specialized uniforms custom-made.
Why Do We Wear Black
We use black gi to show our heritage from Hawai’i and it shows less dirt. Black gi has a mystique. It looks “cool”. The karate-gi is handy to use in class. It is more durable than cotton sweats. Not as confining as “biker shorts”. And they distinguish us as martial artist.
The color has a little to do with the Chuck Norris movie, “Good Guys Wear Black”. I’m one of his fans but good guys can wear whatever color they like. Keep a modicum of fashion sense before you introduce odd ball uniforms. In short, don’t get worked up over false traditions.
Tracy’s Chinese Kenpo’s website has a great article or two on the origins of Kenpo gi colors and styles. Take a minute or two and read them. This style also introduced the eye-boggling checkerboard-swirl pattern that was popular in the 70s and early 80s. Our industry is now large enough to support all sorts of interesting uniforms and colors so enjoy the selection. In another 30 years, I’ll be writing about why lightning stripes on the pant legs are traditional.
I’m still holding out for leopard print uniforms.