An iconic aspect of most martial arts is the uniform, which is often known as a gi (pronounced ghee), In fact, a longer Japanese name for this uniform is Keikogi, which translates as ‘practice cloth’. But do you have to wear a gi to martial arts?
Wearing a gi to martial arts depends on the dojo or place of training. Some dojos require participants to wear a gi while others are fine with participants wearing athletic clothing of their choice.
In other words, your dojo will be able to tell you if they require you to wear a gi or if you can show up to learn in some basketball shorts and a t-shirt.
There’s also quite a bit to know about gi, especially as different martial arts require variations on them. Read on below for our handy guide all about gis, and whether you’ll need to have one when you practice martial arts!
What is a Gi?
Gis are cloth uniforms used in martial arts. They are generally constructed of soft cotton to be a relatively lightweight material suitable for exercising in. The left side of the jacket always crosses over the right unless someone is buried in a gi.
Gis are traditional uniforms and were created around the beginning of the 20th century by the inventor of Judo, Jigoro Kano. While today there are some nuanced differences compared to the original gi, largely due to advances in available materials and adaptation for other specific sports, the gi remains recognizable as visually similar to its original form.
Gis come in several types and varieties (more about this later in our discussion of the gis used for kung fu and karate). As gi is just a word that means cloth, you can change the name of each specific gi by using the name of the sport. For example, a karategi would be a gi for karate, and a judogi would be a gi for judo.
Is a Gi for Kung Fu Different?
A kung fu gi is very different to the gis of other martial arts, as it is a Chinese martial art rather than Japanese. While most gis fold one side of the cloth over each other, kung fu gis instead consist of a jacket that uses frog buttons on the front to remain closed.
There are several other differences between the gis of kung fu and other sports. Its sleeves can vary from not being there at all, and the ankles of the pants tighten. Visually, a kung fu gi varies in color while other sports tend to prefer (though not use exclusively) a white gi.
Rather than using belts of the same style as other sports, kung fu uses colorful silk sashes, if the dojo uses anything at all.
A kung fu gi is also a common casual dress of older men in some provinces of China, as it is a lightweight piece of clothing that’s comfortable across all seasons. China as a country has vast differences in weather across the provinces, so it’s useful to be able to wear something versatile!
Although it’s not considered part of the gi, it’s significant that kung fu is one of the only martial arts practiced with closed shoes, as it’s more often practiced on a wooden floor than on a mat.
Is a Gi for Karate Different?
Technically, as a gi is just a uniform of the sensei’s choosing, there’s not a standardized karategi. However, tournaments can require specific equipment, which is often a cotton folded jacket, secured with a belt, and pants.
Variations on this exist, in particular with material, thickness, and fastening methods such as traditional cloth jackets, or newer pullover-style ones. Traditional gi pants are fastened with drawstrings, whereas newer ones use elasticated materials to be more child-friendly.
Can you Use a Gi From one Martial Art in Another?
Some gis are wearable in other martial arts, particularly similar gis such as those of Judo and Jiu-Jitsu. Tournaments and serious dojos are more likely to specify equipment. If you are unsure of what to wear, contact your dojo directly.
The gis of some sports are more suited to their sport than others. For example, judo and jiu-jitsu are both sports that involve a fair deal of grappling, so their uniforms are stitched tactically in certain places and in such a way that they are resistant to tearing. Thus a karate gi may be less suitable for these sports, as it would be likely to tear easily.
Conversely, a judo or jiu-jitsu gi might be thicker and heavier than a karate gi, especially around the collar, so can impede a little the light, agile movements required in this martial art. However, if you’re buying a uniform for kids practicing two different martial arts, it’s reasonable to use a gi of a different sport bearing in mind that they will likely outgrow it quickly!
A significant benefit of a gi is the pride you feel as part of a class all wearing the same uniform, so using gis from other martial arts can slightly affect how the class feels.
However, the uniform of the dojo is always up to the sensei or instructor, and may even just be pants and a T-shirt, so don’t forget to check in with them if you’re thinking of using a gi from a different martial art in your sessions.
Why do Martial Artists Wear a Gi?
There are several reasons why martial artists wear a gi. They are practical uniforms and convey the traditional discipline of these sports. They also foster pride, both in the dojo and the student’s abilities, visible from the color of the belt they wear.
Gis that are adapted for each individual sport are also quite specific equipment, designed to facilitate flexibility and strength that is required across many different martial arts. In certain martial arts, gis are designed to be tough, as ordinary sportswear is not designed to withstand the grappling and fighting of these sports!
Final Thoughts on Martial Art Gis
Getting a gi is not only a mark of pride for the student – it’s also a great way to help them better connect with the sport.
My kids have all loved doing martial arts. They started with aikido before the 2020 shut down due to the pandemic. Their previous sensei (Sensei Mike) hasn’t been able to come back to teach (due to personal health reasons), so now the kids do kung fu with two shifus that Sensei Mike sent us to.
It’s been weird adjusting to the new terminology, but it’s been so amazing that the new teachers have let us continue using our old gis while also transitioning us to their systems and ways of doing kung fu.
So make sure that you always talk to your teacher – they’ll be able to help you find the right gi for your dojo. Or if you just want a realistic-looking gi for use on your own?
You can click this link to do a search on Amazon for the best prices on gis. We bought our gis directly from our dojo, though, as it ended up being both a better price for us and a way to support our dojo.
Even if our dojo is just a gym at the local community center!
Learning from your own experiences is important, but learning from others is also smart. These are the sources used in this article and our research to be more informed as a family of sports nuts wannabes.
- “The Importance of Your Gi.” Teton Training Center, tetontrainingcenter.com/gi/.
- “Understanding the Karate Uniform or Gi.” Karate for Kids, https://karateforkids.com.au/understanding-the-karate-uniform-or-gi/.