The hakama is not meant to hide the footwork
The hakama: simple clothing of the nobility
The hakama serves to hide the movement of the feet in the practice of martial arts, and in Aikido in particular?
It is such a common explanation that it has almost become a truth for practically all practitioners. Unfortunately, it is false, and this is very easily demonstrated when we look at the history of this garment, how it was and how it still is worn in Japan.
The hakama, affair of the samurai?
The hakama is seen in the West as the typical clothing of the samurai. Now, the hakama is originally a ceremonial garment, worn by the nobility but also by the clergy.
In Japan, still today, the hakama is more emblematic of graduation, marriage and other religious ceremonies than samurai and martial arts, although it remains omnipresent, particularly in the practice of Kendo.
The hakama being found in China, at a period prior to its appearance in Japan, it is very likely that it was imported to Japan within Buddhism, making this outfit a formal ceremonial garment.
It is true that the samurai wore hakama. It was not always the case and it seems that one of its debuts in this environment was a thicker garment, even leather, worn on horseback to protect oneself from branches and brambles.
This is also the point where the two types of hakama "andon" and "umanori" can be explained. Andon features the traditional "lantern" shape (or skirt-like cut), and umanori literally means "ride a horse" and is hence, cut in the shape of trousers.
Indeed, although the monks and women had no reason to ride horses, the samurai and nobles did. They needed a garment that allowed them to spread their legs and thus, that was most likely the origin of the umanori shaped hakama. It is difficult to find prove the further we travel back in time, however, it is therefore also very likely that the andon hakama preceded the umanori hakama.
The meaning of the hakama for the samurai
To summarize, the Hakama is not specifically an affair of the samurai, but it rather was a commonly used garment. Let us pass on to its use in horse riding, very far from the hakama that we know today, and move on from there to the reasons why the samurai wore a hakama made from cloth.
The hakama actually was a formal garment. It was worn with a traditional kimono whose ensemble forms the Kamishimo and it used to demonstrate rather a social status than the status of a warrior. This uniform was indeed worn by the vast majority of the nobility as well as by the wealthy merchants.
There were also other types of hakama worn depending on the ceremonies, in particular a very long hakama called "nagabakama", hampering severely the movement. It is very likely that in the warlike society of the time, the demand on visitors (samurai) to wear that type of hakama by some seigneurs and Shogun was a precautionary measure to prevent them to move (and attack) easily.
As far as everyday wear was concerned, there are two types of use
The one that one sees very often in samurai movies, setting in scene a ronin (samurai without master), confronted with unexpected attacks or duels. In such sequences, the samurai is often in his daily clothes and ties the legs of his hakama and the sleeves of his kimono to facilitate his movements.
And the second is the war. The upper echelons who did not concede at the front eventually wore the hakama, but most warriors were wearing armors and the hakama made no longer sense.
That being said, you will find quite interesting that Samourais in old movies such as Akira Kurosawa's movies are wearing their Hakama very short, while in modern Jidai geki (movies) shot the past 10 or 20 years, the Hakama are much longer. Obviously, fashion has also taken over the historical movie industry !
The way of wearing the hakama - and showing the feet
On prints of that time, but also via the traditions preserved in certain schools, it is very clear that the hakama is worn above the ankle on one hand, and that it sometimes even is attached during duels and fights.
At this point, it gets very difficult to justify the fact that a hakama serves to hide the footwork. Would you hide your feet at the risk of hindering your movement, slowing you down and thus dying? Would you show your feet during a duel, witnessed by spectators, but hide them during training in the dojo? This is very unlikely.
It is not impossible that there were samurai who wore the hakama to hide the movement of the feet and not to reveal their techniques. However, if this was the case, they had to be certain that this would not cause a significant disadvantage in terms of freedom of movement and it also presupposed that they indeed had a "secret" technique not to be disclosed.
And particularly in that context, it has to be mentioned that in general, the samurai were actually not all very good at fighting.
Representing 7% of the population during the Edo period, they were part of the caste of the nobles and managed mainly administrative affairs or military strategy.
What about these days? Is it to hide the movement?
Hiding the feet movements from ones students being there to learn, or hiding ones footwork from the teacher being there to correct us - wouldn't that be a funny choice?
There is certainly an aesthetic side to wearing the hakama relatively long, and it has become a fashion, but it is not a tradition that historically makes sense.
In this video, Tada Shihan wears the hakama relatively short, wedging it into his belt at 1:06 approximately, to facilitate his movements and to show what he demonstrates. What is the interest in having a long hakama for aesthetic reasons if it is to pull it up especially during demonstrations?
Of course, this is not to advise you to wear the hakama short. It is a personal choice. However, if you make this choice, do it knowingly and not based on false beliefs.
Good practice to all!
Further information: Why do Yudansha wear Hakama? by Guillaume Erard. Excellent article on the meaning of the hakama in the practice of martial arts.