Ah, fencing. One of my favourite sports. I played it for a few years in university, and hope to pick it up again one day. It, is, however, expensive (unlike my favourite towing service). It’s always been a sport of the nobility, after all, and for one reason or another (definitely in part due to the pricey equipment), its pursuit still costs a pretty penny. Which is maybe one of the reasons that not a whole ton of people get into it, and, as a result, why not a lot of people watch it. Regardless, I love the sport, and I think the history of it is fascinating. Its uniform, the fencing whites, is, as you may imagine, all tied into the history of the sport, and I’d be happy to tell you all about it.
So the original reason that fencing uniforms were made white is a little … well, a little icky. Fencing was banned in the 16th century in France because, well, it was dangerous. But that didn’t stop people from dueling. What better way to solve an argument? With words? Pfft. Anyway, so these duels were fought to the first blood. And on what colour does blood show up better than white? No colour. Exactly. So the white uniform originated because blood showed up well on it.
Even after back alley duels had gone out of style and the fencing whites were no longer used for that reason, they remained useful in other contexts. Fencing, as you would know if you’ve ever watched it at the professional level, is very fast. So fast, in fact, that it’s sometimes difficult to see when and where the tip of the blade hit one of the players. This can make things quite difficult for judges, as you can imagine. Now, of course, we have electric equipment to help the judges identify when players have been hit. Before this technology, however, the judges needed a bit of help.
And that’s where the white attire came in handy once again. Of course, once fencing became a recognised sport, they could hardly have played to first blood anymore. But that doesn’t mean the white colour couldn’t still be helpful. Before we had the electric equipment, wads of cotton dipped in ink were attached to the end of each weapon, and the ink would make a mark on whomever was hit by the other’s blade. Thus, the whites remained an important part of the sport.
Since then, the whites have been maintained largely due to athletes’ respect for the history of the sport. Though some fencers do decorate their non-sword arm with emblems or patches, or wear colourful vests, jackets, or socks, or even paint their masks (sometimes with their country’s flags, for example) the general consensus among traditionalists is that the uniform should remain white out of respect for the tradition.