Designing the Modern Jacket for Irish Collar and Elbow Wrestling

“The first rule in Collar and Elbow is that the men shall wear short coats or jackets, made of canvas, not extending below the hips, with strong collar and elbow, suitable for grasp of an opponent”.

Australian Town and Country Journal, 24 June 1899

“[Collar and Elbow] is recognized as the national style of Ireland. The wrestlers wear a short coat or jacket, with stout collar and sleeves, to obtain a good grip. Each man seizes the collar of his opponent with his right hand and with the other hand takes a firm hold on the sleeve at the elbow. During the struggle, neither grip must be relaxed, on pain of losing.”

The World Book: Organized Knowledge in Story and Picture, 1917

“Collar and Elbow wrestling, they called it. It took rugged men, and a rugged shirt.”

The Burlington Free Press, 29 Aug. 1967

Jacket wrestling as a form of human competition and recreation is something that spans the length and breadth of Eurasia, from the mountains of Tajikistan to the fields of Brittany. The rules and means of victory naturally differ from region to region (indeed, often from village to village) but the distinguishing feature remains the same: wrestlers wear a sturdy garment such as a jacket or shirt, on which they are permitted to take their grip during the bout. In the modern day, the most widely practiced form of jacket wrestling on the international level is Judo, followed perhaps closely by Sambo in the nations of the former Soviet Union. Other styles are immensely popular on either the national level (Georgian Chidaoba, Mongolian Bökh) or regional level (Breton Gouren).

The jackets worn in these styles vary significantly in terms of cut and material. In many cases they are based on traditional clothing that was once worn in everyday life, and thus the attire seen in the wrestling circles of Eurasia is as diverse as the peoples and cultures themselves. Some jackets have long sleeves, some have short sleeves, some have no sleeves at all. Some are made of canvas, some of densely woven cotton, some of leather and metal studs. The nature of the jacket dictates which grips are possible, or which throws are more likely to succeed; thus, local culture (via the legacy of traditional clothing that persists to this day as folk wrestling attire) has directly moulded the metagame of many indigenous wrestling styles.

Jackets are an integral aspect of Collar and Elbow, the national wrestling style of Ireland. From the earliest accounts of bouts in the 19th century, we see competitors entering the ring wearing a variety of sturdy attire ranging from “sleeved waistcoats of the jerkin variety” to simple “sack jackets”. Once they met in the centre and the referee completed the formalities, they would take hold of each other’s jackets and begin the intricate battle of trips that so characterises Collar and Elbow as a style.

It is important to note that, in the 19th century, there was no such thing as a truly uniform, regulation jacket for Collar and Elbow. Wrestlers were simply expected to enter the ring wearing something suitably robust, with a strong collar and durable sleeves upon which their opponent could take the necessary grip. Since the average wrestler in 19th-century Ireland would have been a farmer, carpenter, blacksmith (etc.) who wrestled on a recreational basis, the jacket he wore while wrestling would in all likelihood simply have been the same he wore in everyday life, while working in the fields or driving his animals to market. Even during Collar and Elbow’s heyday in the United States, when professional athletes competed for national titles on some of the largest stages in the land, there was nothing approaching a standard “wrestling jacket” to be seen. As long as it was strong enough to stand up to the rigours of a prolonged bout, it was good to go. Predictably, this lack of standardisation often led to vigorous disputes over jackets when one wrestler felt that his opponent’s choice of attire would lend him an unfair advantage.

It is precisely for this reason that most folk wrestling styles eventually elected to standardise their attire. In 19th-century Brittany, a group of shepherds and sailors may have shown up to wrestle in whatever combination of shirts and coats were available, but at a modern Gouren tournament all competitors wear the standard roched. Just as everyone in a modern Georgian Chidaoba tournament wears the chokha, and everyone in a Mongolian wrestling naadam wears the jodag. The uniform cut and material of the wrestling garb helps to ensure a level playing field, by preventing any competitors from enjoying undue sartorial advantages due to their jacket being e.g. too loose or too flimsy to grip properly. An additional benefit is that it helps to establish a distinctive visual identity for the sport. One does not enter a Judo tournament wearing a Sambo kurtka, for instance.

As part of the modern revival of Collar and Elbow, the decision was made to introduce a standard jacket that can be used in competition and in training. The following guiding principles were established:

  • A cut that emphasises the characteristic collar-and-elbow grip.
  • A colour that is distinct from the standard white/ royal blue/ red of other grappling sports.
  • Historically grounded in the culture that produced the style.

With those principles in place, the design process could begin…

First Draft

In terms of settling on a distinctive colour, the choice was easy. The Irish national sporting colour is green. Whether it be the Olympics, the World Cup, or the Six Nations tournament in rugby, you will invariably see the Irish team taking to the field in green kit, typically coupled with white highlights. When the time came to design a jacket for the national wrestling style of Ireland, then, green immediately emerged as the leading contender.

Thankfully, producing a test version of a green grappling jacket was as simple as dyeing a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu gi the necessary colour.

This first draft quickly established two things. One, Irish sporting green worked very well when applied to a grappling jacket, and two, in the interests of historical accuracy it was going to be necessary to move away from the gi-style cut that is otherwise quite common in grappling uniforms.

The gi as we know it today was first developed in the late 19th century by the founder of Judo, Jigoro Kano, who based his design on the everyday garments worn in Japan at the time. (According to some sources, Kano was possibly also influenced by the heavy hemp hanten jackets worn by Tokyo firefighters). Over the years, his original gi design underwent several modifications, such as the introduction of longer sleeves and pant legs, but nonetheless remains recognisably rooted in the time and place of its birth: 19th century Japan.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Sambo, two grappling styles that arose directly out of and were heavily influenced by Judo respectively, based their uniforms closely on that of their Japanese precursor. And since Judo, BJJ, and Sambo make up the “holy trinity” of jacketed grappling styles in terms of international popularity, it comes as little surprise that the gi-style cut has come to be inextricably associated with jacketed grappling in the popular imagination.

However, one of the guiding design principles for the Collar and Elbow jacket was that it would be accurately grounded in the historical clothing of 19th-century Ireland. BJJ (Brazil) and Sambo (USSR) both have close ties to Judo, so despite their geographically dispersed proving grounds there was at least a lineage that easily justified their adoption of a Judo-style gi jacket. Collar and Elbow was developed on the other side of the planet, so it would have made very little sense to introduce a modern jacket for the style based on Meiji-era Japanese casual wear.

So while the colour was good to go, the cut was going to take some thinking.

Second Draft

As previously mentioned, the average wrestler in 19th century Ireland could have been anything from a farmer, a blacksmith, a fisherman, a carpenter, or even a priest in his day-to-day life. He would not have had specialised sporting attire like the athletes of nowadays; he would simply have worn whatever combination of everyday clothing met the necessary standards of comfort and durability. Sports like Gaelic football and hurling could be undertaken with a relatively minimalist outfitting of shirt, pants, and shoes (perhaps not even the latter in some cases), but Collar and Elbow had the additional requirement of a jacket – ideally one that did not necessarily need to remain in pristine condition.

Thankfully, there is plenty of visual evidence for how the jackets of the time looked.

From there, it was just a case of making several modifications in order to standardise the appearance of the jacket and streamline it for the purposes of wrestling. For instance, many 19th-century jackets were quite long, reaching down to mid-thigh, and sometimes even as far as the knees. This, predictably, is not ideal in any sporting scenario, and particularly not in Collar and Elbow, where the legs play such a crucial offensive role. There was in fact a famous dispute that occurred before an 1863 bout in Kildare, in which one man complained that his opponent’s lengthy coat would prevent him from seeing and reacting to his trips. When the first written ruleset for Collar and Elbow was published in the United States, it attempted to pre-empt any further disputes of that nature by specifying…

“The men shall wear knit shirt and short coat or jacket, not extending below the hips, with strong collar and elbow for grasp of the opponent…”

This length requirement was mirrored in all subsequent written rulesets. As such, the decision was made to reflect that in the cut of the modern jacket, along with some other modifications such as short sleeves to emphasise the regulation grip.

These sketches were handed over to a design team, who promptly produced a physical version that showed us we were on the right track.

Third Draft

After several months of testing to ensure that the jacket could stand up to the rigours of a wrestling match, we confirmed that we already had something very close to a finished piece on our hands. In fact, from a purely functional point of view, the jacket could do exactly what was required of it. But there is more to traditional wrestling attire than just functionality…

In Senegal, a wrestler will often open the proceedings by loudly reciting a bàkk, a boastful account of his own prowess and achievements stylistically rooted in West African storytelling traditions. The sumo wrestlers of Japan cast handfuls of salt before them to purify the ground on which they will compete. The Xingu of Brazil approach each other on all fours imitating the throaty roar of the jaguar. When a wrestler wins a bout in Georgian Chidaoba, he will frequently celebrate with a vigorous Caucasian folk dance before leaving the arena. The victorious party in Mongolian Bökh jogs in a circle while rhythmically raising his arms up and down in imitation of an eagle.

Folk wrestling is a cultural activity; one that often includes a significant amount of overlap with other elements of culture such as song, dance, religion, art, and poetry. Wrestlers proudly carry their culture with them into the ring, in the ritualised movements they use to warm up, in the names they use for techniques, in the clothing they wear. In the latter case, that can often take the form of aesthetic flair added to a particular garment, such as the intricately woven leg sleeves (tuhuu) worn by wrestlers in Inner Mongolia. The artwork on these sleeves is entirely unique to each individual wrestler. It serves absolutely no functional purpose whatsoever, other than to represent who they are, and where they and their style came from.

Ireland has a similar form of intricate knotwork that was used extensively in artwork and sculpture for centuries. These snaidhm Cheilteach (“Celtic knots”) appear as a form of peripheral decoration on a vast range of manuscripts, up to and including one of the nation’s greatest historical treasures, the Book of Kells. In manys ways, that style of knotwork has become almost a visual shorthand for Irish culture. What better way to add a touch of homegrown flair to an Irish wrestling jacket?

Final Version

The final touches involved little more than adding a second colour option, since, for the purposes of competition, this can be a useful manner of distinguishing between competitors. For instance, blue vs. white in Judo, blue vs. red in Sambo…

And green vs. navy in Collar and Elbow.

And that’s the story of how the national wrestling style of Ireland finally got its own custom jackets. Here’s a look at them in action at their competition debut in July 2021.