If you’ve ever heard the term “men in white”, you might be thinking of doctors, or something related to Will Smith and the men in black, but in fact, it refers to the masters of the blade; fencers.
But with all the new cool sports equipment and attractive uniforms, it might be strange that fencers stick to the same white ensemble.
Why Do Fencers Wear White Uniforms?
Fencers wear white because, before electronic fencing swords, fencing bouts would last until first blood was drawn. The wound would be easier to see on white jackets.
After so many injuries, the tip of the blade was covered left a pink mark to indicate where the fencer was touched. This mark was clearly visible on white, making it easier to tell whether a hit was on target or not.
This whiter fencing jacket was vital to accurate scoring.
Around the 16th century when sport uniforms became popular, white garments were used since they were the most durable and easy to wash.
Before this, fencers were seen wearing basically whatever they wanted.
Although fencers were meant to be fencing until first blood, there were duels to the death for many years. However, for sporting and legal purposes, fencing until first blood became popular in the 1800s, with the introduction of the epee.
The “Point D’Arrrêt“
Prior to the 1900s, a point d’arrêt was put on the tip of the blade.
The point d’arrêt (translated to “breaking point”) is a tip consisting of three points surrounding a compound mixture; phenolphthalein (pink dye) and cornstarch.
This mixture is what leaves a pink mark on a fencer indicating a touch.
This pink mark was of course easier to see on a white surface and washed off easily with vinegar during the matches.
Once electric fencing came into existence there was no need for this type of point anymore. The point d’arrêt was left in the past, but the all-white uniform was not.
Before this mixture was created, there was no exact uniform used in fencing. Fencers were seen wearing all kinds of clothing.
It is much easier to determine which team or player scores a point since a light is activated whenever a sword makes a touch, instead of looking for a small mark on a jacket.
Today it is still worn, as people have become accustomed to wearing it, and its association with fencing. It also allows the judges to clearly see the blade against the white surface.
Why Were White Fencing Uniforms Popular?
The white uniform became popular amongst all sports, since the fabric used was more durable, kept athletes cooler, and easier to wash.
Around the 1600s when this color uniform was popular, there were no washing machines or laundry detergents, so aggressively scrubbing garments against washboards was the best way to clean clothes. This caused colors to fade out quickly.
Since sports uniforms are constantly getting dirty and sweaty, they need to be washed constantly. So any color other than white would fade within days.
After leaving a white garment in the sun as a natural bleach, they would look brand new after every wash. Not only that, but they kept athletes much cooler than any darker colors that would absorb much more heat.
Uniforms In Modern Fencing
Fencers today are extremely respectful to the traditions and history of fencing, which is why the funny-looking ensemble is still the only uniform seen in today’s fencing events.
Although modern customizations are made, like colors added to the mask, or the athlete’s name on the back of the jacket, fencing culture remains the same and the men in white will remain a custom for the foreseeable future.
Black Fencing Uniforms
Nowadays, masters and trainers can be seen wearing black fencing uniforms. This comes from the HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) practitioners wearing all black to show their position.
However, in the mid-1800s, a fencer appeared in many tournaments dressed in black velvet. This angered most fencers he faced as they took pride in the white uniform, but other fencers were influenced by it and donned the black uniform on themselves.
Although it is unknown who this fencer was, it is thought that he was Louis Mérignac, otherwise known as le tireur noir.