Spotlight: Iaido Keikogi

Spotlight 5: Modern Keikogi, Long History

I don’t wear zori in the dojo, but they do look smashing with my uniform!

Welcome to Mukashi no Sewing’s fifth spotlight! Having just returned from the PNKF’s 2021 iaido seminar and shinsa (testing), I thought it might be interesting to spotlight the uniform I wear in the dojo! Although the gi and hakama I own range from 20-ish years old to brand new, keikogi (稽古着, literally “practice clothes”) have a long history in the martial arts.

My new uwagi (jacket, or upper garment) to wear for rank testing. It’s a lot heavier than my usual practice one!

The uwagi (“upper clothes”, usually just referred to as keikogi, or gi), seems to take its inspiration from the heavy hemp jackets worn by firemen in Japan. Martial arts historian Dave Lowry notes that “primary credit for the keikogi must go to Jigoro Kano (1860-1938), the educator and founder of Kodokan judo. According to the records maintained by the Kodokan, Kano devised the judogi…for reasons of dignity and safety.” The 3/4 sleeve, hip-length keikogi I wear today was in full use by 1913, based on extant photographs of the time.

Source. My dojo wears black, although instructors can wear white if they wish.

We don’t add any ornamentation to our keikogi; with two exceptions. The badge on the left breast (the zekken), lists one’s name as well as the dojo name. I sewed snaps to both my gi and the zekken so I can easily remove it for cleaning or testing (as numbers are worn instead of names during tests). The other exception is very high-ranked sensei (teachers) may wear the formal montsuki – it has long sleeves like a kimono, and five “mon,” or crests on it – typically either the dojo crest or their family crest in my experience. I’ve got a little way to go before I earn the right to wear one of those! 🙂

Sewing the first batch of these took hours. It went faster the second time since I could pin the zekken in place and then sew the snaps to match!

Iaido doesn’t do colored belts like karate, instead, the obi belt is there to secure the sword and hold up the pants, or hakama. Hakama are even older than the gi; they first appeared in the Heian era (around 794-1185) as culottes for women that they wore underneath their multilayered kimono. They became men’s hunting garb (essentially, Japanese chaps), and then went through a variety of evolutions that culminated in the Tokugawa period that began in the 1600s as they became formal men’s wear similar to a three-piece suit today. Although some rumors state that their length exists to hide the footwork of the samurai wearing them, Jordy Delage wrote an excellent article dispelling that myth. However, it does seem that Tokugawa-era hakama were designed in part to hamper movement in formal situations and discourage duelling!

In fact, hakama in the right width are always a touch long for me, so I had a lot of hemming to do prior to the seminar!

The correct length to wear hakama for iaido is just around the ankle bone, and once you learn to move correctly you shouldn’t trip over them! Securing them properly takes a bit of practice – there are four straps, plus a tab in back to manage – and different ways of tying the front knot depending on whether you’re in a formal or informal situation. Once you get the hang of it though, they’re very elegant! They also have the benefit of looking good on every body type that I’ve ever seen; they’re cool in the summer and you can layer underneath them to stay cozy in the winter.

I’m such a fan that I’ve recently ordered this fashion pair of from Japanese brand Alice Auaa!

Undivided, or more skirt-like hakama, were worn by girls in the late Meiji and Taisho periods in Japan to give them more freedom as they began to attend school in greater numbers – the hakama held their kimono closed and allowed them a greater range of motions to enjoy sports and other activities. Although technically we wear “men’s hakama” in the dojo, there’s no “men’s iaido” or “women’s iaido” – we all practice and compete together, and wear precisely the same clothes. It’s one of the many things I love about the martial art I practice!

Although those Meiji girls’ outfits were just adorable!

I hope you’ve enjoyed learning a little bit about the history of the uniform I wear for practice! And in case you were wondering, I did indeed pass my rank test. 😀 I’ve got some more interesting spotlights coming up, as well as continued work on my existing projects, so join me next week for more historical fun!

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