by Ann Morris
One of the questions many prospective and beginning fencers ask is, "What do I wear?" They've seen pictures of fencers in their tournament gear and wonder if they need the whole "uniform" to get started.
Some salles or clubs require you to purchase the "uniform" before you begin lessons but others do not. Some, such as Tampa's Fencing Academy, provide the apparel needed for training and bouting to their beginning fencers. Those who stay with it, will usually have a desire to get their own clothing rather than continue to wear items that are also being worn by many others.
The essential items of clothing that you will be adding to your fashion collection will be: the underarm protector, jacket, appropriate trousers, mask, proper shoes, and glove for training. You will need a lame for electric fencing bouting. Women need some sort of breat protection as well.
These items are, of course, required for tournament fencing. While it is not specifically stated in the United States Fencing Association rule book that you must wear white at tournaments, this is the tradition and some tournament organizers may adhere strictly to a "white only" rule. When in doubt, white is the color to go with and, honestly, most of what you'll see offered in the catalogs is going to be white. Coaches may choose black for training but when they compete in tournaments, they also wear white. There are safety requirements that fencing clothing must meet for tournament play and most gear that you see in the catalogs (or in the stores if you are lucky enough to live in one of the very few places that have real live fencing stores)will meet the guidelines. The catalog will state it if an item does not meet the guidelines. (The exceptions are usually gear meant for Society for Creative Anachronisms fighters.)
Underarm protectors are pretty standard things. Most can be worn by either a left-handed or right-handed fencer as they are reversible. They are also the same for men and women. Some fencers will go without these for training but if you wish to maximize your safety, wear them for training as well as bouting.
Jackets for men and women are different in two ways. The women's are shorter and more tapered at the waist and have pockets inside the front for the "hubcap" style breast protectors. Both men's and women's jackets have double layers of material in the sleeve of the sword arm. This is why you must specify whether you want a left-handed or a right-handed jacket when you buy one. Some of the newer nylon jacket designs have double layers in both sleeves.
The two most common materials for jackets are cotton duck and nylon. The cotton duck is usually cheaper and has the advantage that you can bleach it when it gets dingy but it is stiffer and can be pretty warm to wear. The nylon clothing stays soft and is cooler to wear. However, you cannot bleach it and it does cost more.
Jackets (and lames) come in back zip and front zip styles. You pay about $10 more for the front zip style but it does eliminate you having to be a contortionist or having to have a dressing buddy to help you.
Breast protectors come in two varieties: metal or plastic disks ("hubcaps") and "plastic bras." The "hubcaps" are cheaper but don't cover as much area and they can be pretty darn cold when you put them in your bra. The fact is that most women find putting then in the pockets provided in fencing jackets just doesn't work that well. They are not always placed properly for the woman's figure. So, most need to put them inside a bra, next to the skin. The "plastic bra" costs more but covers more area and has the advantage that you can wear it over your shirt.
As we at Tampa's Fencing Academy live in a very warm climate, we have on occasion been somewhat lax in the trouser department. Oh we don't go bottomless but we have been known to wear shorts to fence. If you also fence in a warm climate, and your coach will allow shorts, be sure to wear the long ones that reach the knee. Even though it is only in epee fencing that the legs are a target, your legs do need protection. Sometime, you will get an off target leg hit in foil or sabre fencing, so leg protection is important. Wearing some comfortably loose (but not overwhelmingly baggy) trousers made of sturdy cloth is recommended. The traditional fencer's breeches are white knickers that come to just below the knee. Long white socks are worn with these. This is what you'll see most fencers wearing at tournaments, although longer white pants will do fine if you don't like knickers. You will not be allowed to wear shorts at tournaments.
Masks can present a problem in that you are not going to know what size to order just from intuition. If your salle does not have maske that you can borrow, you might want to ask some of your fellow fencers if you can try out their masks to see what size is comfortable for you. You are most likely going to be ordering your mask "sight unseen" from a catalog and having tried some on will be helpful to you.
The thing to remember about your mask is that it should not feel too tight but should not wobble around too easily either.
Shoes are very important. You need not buy the very expensive fencing shoes offered in the catalogs but you do need shoes with good traction and support. Cross training shoes work very well. Running and walking shoes work less well. Whether you choose high-tops or low-tops is a matter of personal preference. Some fencers like the ankle support of high-tops but others find that they feel too restrictive. You may feel funny doing this but it's a good idea when you are trying on your shoes to get in the en garde position and take a few steps forward and backward to see how the shoes feel. It's worth looking a bit silly in the shoe store to make sure your shoes are going to be comfortable when you train.
You can find quite a variety of gloves in the catalogs, ranging in price from under $20 to over $40. You should have a glove that allows you freedom of movement and is not too loose or bulky. While not absolutely essential, some padding on the back of the glove is nice. Again, you might ask to try on other's gloves to see what kind you like best.
Lames come in several types. There are copper ones, stainless steel ones, "silver cloth," and metallic cloth ones. Prices range greatly according to the type you get. You can find some "economy" ones that are copper for as little as $35 but the truth is that they don't last as long as the more expensive ones and you dare not wash them. You can get a good serviceable metallic cloth lame for about $85 to $100. This will be fine for most sport fencers and will last rather well. It also can be washed by gently dipping it into a lukewarm water and mild detergent (Ivory Snow is often recommended)bath.
Fencers who train a lot or who plan to compete in many tournaments will want to purchase one of the more expensive stainless steel or "silver" ones. What you pay more for is durability. You don't want "dead spots" in your lame when you are electric fencing.
It may seem that you could rack up quite a fashion bill getting all of this but you can manage it for $300, or even a little less, for everything you need. In fact, you can even get a practice weapon in the deal if you buy one of the "starter sets" that several suppliers offer. Some starter sets are priced as low as $110 and include a mask, jacket, glove, and practice weapon. You can get an underarm protector for about $18. The "hubcap" breast protectors are about $10 and the "plastic bra" is about $35. You probably have trousers you can use already and if you go to a discount store, you can get good, name brand even, cross training shoes for about $50. You may even get lucky on shoes and be able to get good ones even less expensively than that.
Sabre fencers will need some different items that may cost a little more but as most fencers begin with foil or epee, what you've read here will cover most, if not all, of what you need to know to be on your way to being a well-dressed fencer.
Since most of you are going to have to buy your fencing gear from catalogs, here is a list of suppliers and how to reach them.
THE FOLLOWING SUPPLIERS ARE NOT ONLINE. Call by phone to get catalogs mailed to you.
Triplette Competition Arms (Elkin, NC)
Colonial Dist. Fencing Equipment (Cedarburg, WI)
Vinage Sporting Equipment (Sheboygan, WI)