Academy of Fencing Masters Blog

Art of Fencing, Art of Life

Why are fencing uniforms white?

Fencing training in 19th century postcard (credit: Association for Historical Fencing)

Fencing training in 19th century postcard (credit: Association for Historical Fencing)

I love watching the sea of fencers in their gorgeous whites during a competition.  It gives a sense of pride and history of the sport.

Like the Marshall Arts, the student traditionally wears the white uniform and the master or instructor is dressed in black.  But in today’s fencing world, fencers are allowed to decorate their uniform with emblems on their non-weapon arm, or dress in colorful jackets or socks.  Some fencers wear gray, yellow, or blue electric vests for foil and sabre fencing.  Even some masks are colorful and decorated with flags, colors or emblems.

According to the 2013-2014 Athlete Handbook – USA Fencing, the white color of the uniform is no longer mandatory:

“At USFA local, divisional and sectional competitions, there are no restrictions on colors or decorations on uniforms, providing that the uniforms comply with other requirements. “

However, there is a lot of controversy over this issue of whether or not to introduce color or décor to the uniform.  Traditionalists feel that the white color should be used as a sign of reverence for the sport, while the modern view embraces the idea of fencing attire adjusting with the current trends.

While there is no restriction against adding a splash of color or emblem to your fencing uniform, there is a certain taboo among fencers about tainting the pristine white attire.  Wearing white shows respect for the fencing history and its centuries old traditions.

Where did the inspiration for the white uniform come from?

The origins of the white uniform are actually a bit gory in nature.

Although fencing was banned during 16th century France, illegal duels of honor were all the rage throughout the country and Europe.  These duels were fought to the point where first blood was spilled.  Once a fencer bled from a hit, the duel was over and a winner would be declared.  Since the color white would show blood immediately, it was the chosen color of fencing.

When the sport stopped dueling to first blood, the white uniform continued to be useful.  Fencing is very rapid – in fact, the first thing you’ll read on many fencing sites is that “the tip of the fencing weapon is the second fastest moving object in sport; the first is the marksman’s bullet!” Before the advent of electronic scoring equipment, judges needed a way to “see” the hits or touches of the weapon or blade.  To assist the judges, the tips of the weapon bore a wad of cotton soaked in ink.  When a fencer made contact with his/her opponent, the mark would show quite well on the white uniform.

Likewise the origins of other aspects of the fencer’s uniform are based on historical traditions.  For instance, in the Middle Ages when fencing was a craft of the nobility, the fashion was to wear pants to the knee with high socks covering the rest of the leg.  To connect to this historical aspect of fencing, modern fencing adopted this style as part of the uniform.

Today, the white uniform are no longer a necessity thanks to the electronic sensor equipment and modern day fashion.  However, these choices serve as a powerful reminder of the centuries of history and evolution behind the sport.  Indeed, the fashion is as much a part of the sport as the sword itself.

Fencing masks in Cadet and Junior Fencing World Championship 2014 in Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Fencing masks in Cadet and Junior Fencing World Championship 2014 in Plovdiv, Bulgaria

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4 Comments

  1. To be honest, I really didn’t know where the color of the uniforms came from. It does make sense that when people fenced, blood would show up immediately on the uniform. Now, I do think that they should keep the color to pay homage to the sport. Even still, I think that people will change the colors to support their country or team.

  2. Raymond Koren

    If the care was for practicing in a re-enacting way, then modern materials and grips for blades and such wouldn’t be used. Being that this already a sport and not martial arts or reenacting, as long as it holds up to practical and safety standards, I see no reason why personal style should not be allowed.

  3. Chad

    You mean martial arts, i.e. military skills or methods of training for armed or unarmed combat, which are not capitalized. The Marshall Plan, on the other hand, is capitalized since it was named after Gen. George Marshall, but has nothing to do with fencing.

    I would also question whether there is historical evidence for fencing masters wearing black. Melchers’ 1895 “The Fencing Master” clearly is in white, a tan plastron over his jacket (with a stylish heart as a target) and other period paintings show white or variously colored shirts. Your postcard seems to show observers in military uniform, not a fencing master. One fencer competed in black velvet in the 1860’s, but that never seems to have been associated with coaches and died out long before the recent marketing of black jackets.

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