Traditional martial arts are known for the use of a training uniform, the "gi." The founder of Judo, Jigoro Kano is credited with its creation along with the belt ranking system (kyu - lower grades and dan - black belt grades). The keikogi (kay koh gee) or dogi (doe gee) is actually an augmented under garment similar to a pair of long-johns that is designed to withstand the rigors of martial arts training.
For example, judo students wear a quilted gi meant for being grabbed and pulled because of the many throws and joint locks in the art whereas a karate gi may be single layer of cotton or and a bit less constructive to allow for punches and kicks. The jacket is held together with a belt that represents a students rank and status similar to pre WW II Japan.
There are a growing number of marital arts schools that do not use a gi and prefer to have students in shorts and t-shirts or street clothes because it allows for greater movement as well as a more "realistic" approach to fighting. And while it's true that the gi has only been around for a little over a hundred years, there are some great benefits.
Mental Focus. Anyone who have served in the military or is or has been a first responder understands that once he or she dons the uniform, their focus must be on the immediate task at hand. This is also true of traditional martial arts uniforms. Wearing a gi is a reminder to everyone (in the dojo) that the environment is one of mutual respect and discipline.
Cleanliness. People sweat a lot. A gi absorbs a lot of that sweat (and blood) that would otherwise end up on somebody else. Of course, those of us who practice grappling arts accept that fact that we are going to swap sweat with other people, but a gi will keep this to a minimum and help to keep the training mats from getting overly saturated.
Discipline. One of the most important aspects of traditional martial arts is discipline. Depending on the type of art you study, there is typically a formal way to wear, fold and care for the gi. In traditional Japanese martial arts such as aikido, jujutsu, Iaido and kyudo, the hakama or pleated pants are a part of the training uniform. The process of folding the hakama after class is just as much a part of the martial discipline as the art itself.
Our students wear a gi for training in our dojo for the majority of our classes. Some times we will have class with t-shirts and sweat pants or street clothes just to mix things up a little bit. One thing that I've noticed over the years, having had classes with and without traditional uniforms is that attitudes are visibly different when folks are not wearing a gi. What do you think?
During my second week of basic training for the United States Air Force, one of the guys in the barracks asked our training instructor (TI) when we would learn how to shoot the M16. The training instructor's reply went something like this: "You don't even know how to fold your *&@)& underwear yet! How do you expect to learn how to fire a *&(@% M16?
Anyone with basic military training experience knows that trainees have to perform all kinds of mindless chores such as folding underwear into six-inch squares, making hospital corners, spit-shining boots, etc. Failure to perform these simple tasks perfectly resulted in severe punishment. Why? Details.
If a trainee does not have the capacity to learn the simple tasks, how can he or she learn the important ones like loading, cleaning and firing a weapon, following an aircraft tech order or applying a tourniquet to stop bleeding? They cannot. All of these things require attention to detail. If you neglect the details in simple tasks, how can you expect to learn the really important, potentially life-saving ones? Martial arts training (Budo) requires the same discipline.
If a student is not willing hone foundational skills such as ukemi (rolling), stance, posture, footwork, etc., he will never master anything. It takes a long time -- perhaps a lifetime to learn such skills but it all starts with mundane basics. In the Bible, Jesus tells us to build our homes on rock rather than sand. Matthew 7:24-27. It takes much longer and it's lot more work, but a solid foundation is well-worth the time and effort.
As a young karate student, I never appreciated kihon (basic strikes and kicks) or kata (forms). All I wanted to do was fight and I became really good at sparring but really lousy at karate. I didn't really understand karate until I lived in Japan and found aikido...and budo. Karate is budo; aikido is budo. Judo, kyudo, iaido...all budo. Budo is roughly translated as "The way to enlightenment through warrior training." Training for war is far more rigorous than just learning how to fight; it involves strategy, planning, logistics...details. The way we line up before and after class, the bow, the way we fold our uniforms after class, kihon, kata, bokken training...all details.
Real budo training is rigorous and demanding because it focuses on details that could potentially save your life some day. Mundane, boring details...like folding underwear, making hospital corners and spit-shining boots.