This is the true story and history of the very short lived ITF “color” uniform of the early 1980s. We have interviewed black belts, masters and students of the time, and gotten the history, the material and reasons behind the uniform. The reason why it was never implemented, the exact amount of orders for the uniforms (and prices paid per), the material used, and why General Choi pushed the uniform for a short time. Over 50 people were interviewed for this article that now spans 3 decades to write it!
The article was going to be published on Taekwon-Do’s birthday April 11, but with more and more black belts and masters at the time giving their statements and opinions, it was impossible to get it all published before then. STAY TUNE….more is coming…..
- Learn what the material was made of and where it came from
- Learn the importance of the material
- Learn the exact amount of uniforms made (for America distribution) and price per
- Learn what the color was suppose to be!
- Learn why they never lasted long!
- Learn the real reason by Gen. Choi considered this uniform, and then why he chose not to!
- Learn the real reasons why they were never posted in any publications, other then a few pictures here or there.
It is a little known fact, that at one time (believe it or not) the ITF under Choi, Hong-hi with the “strong suggestion” of the DPRK , wanted and tried unsuccessfully to get into the Taekwon-Do dobok (uniform) business.
This was done at the beginning of the North Korean involvement with the ITF. Some uniforms were made in North Korea, there was a small portion made in the USA with the fabric “donated” to the ITF from the DPRK, the ITF sold it to a Korean owned USA held manufacture of uniforms and martial arts equipment. Some uniforms were also made in Eastern Europe and also a very small amount by a company in Western Europe. Less than 1000 uniforms outside of North Korea were made, based on information I could obtain.
Now, of course, these uniforms never made it into mass production, and they were almost all worn by North Koreans who started to “export” Taekwon-Do after the training of Taekwon-Do started a few years prior, by then Master Park, Jung-tae and Choi, Jung-hwa (son of ITF founder). The exception is, several uniforms were given to members that were helping Choi, Hong-hi with the 1983 set of the 15 volume Taekwon-Do encyclopedia set. Sallah Sebree, Mike McCormick, and several others wore these uniforms for the photo shoot.
The issues with these uniforms were they felt a lot like pure polyester, and were stiff, very shiny. The material did withstand a lot of abuse, but, felt nothing like the uniforms that all users were use to, this was also about the same time that the “center closed” uniforms that have become their ”trademark uniform” with the Velcro® or zipper front.
The uniforms were not polyester, as they were purposely portrayed to some, but rather, another synthetic fiber using polyvinyl alcohol, anthracite, and limestone! Polyvinyl alcohol or PVA is used widely and is used in such things a bags, play putty, eye contact solutions and more, is a huge advantage…doesn’t require oil to produce this plastic like material, like most other plastics, which is a huge advantage in North Korea, where they have zero oil producing areas, and must import all their oil, mainly from China and Russia! Of course most know what limestone is, it’s a sedimentary rock, widely available and in abundance in the rocky North Korea. The other ‘ingredient’ is anthracite! Those who live in my area of the country know well what this is….it is commonly referred to as coal! Another mineral that is readily available in North Korea, they are infamous for using slave labor to work their coal mines. These uniforms were also to be a light blue color and not grey, they turned grey!
Vinalon is the fabric made with PVA, limestone and coal! It was first developed while Korea (north & south) were one and under the control of the Japanese Empire in 1939, after some Korean and Japanese scientist learned of the synthetic fabric call nylon. Vinalon is widely used in North Korea, since it can be produced locally (nationally) without any imported materials. The fabric didn’t really get its start until after the Korean War, and with the push of the Juche Philosophy of ”self-sustenance in economic endeavors” after 1955 when Kim, Il-sung first mentioned what would become the Juche ideology.
Today, the ITTAF under Master Mario Pons is “bringing” back these grey uniforms, however, the material is different as the manufacturer is based in Spain, and according to their catalog they are using a 65% polyester and 35% cotton blend, which is now a standard fabric used in Taekwon-Do/martial arts uniform construction.
Master Pons states that the uniform that Gen. Choi wanted was light grey, however, this in fact isn’t true. While the uniform that was produced was light grey in color, it was suppose to be light blue! During the dying process, the uniform because of the material turned light grey and not light blue. The blue color was to be in line with the UN blue (but lighter) as Choi felt that blue was a color of peice and harmony, and also, blue is and was then used by a good majority of country’s as well.
The ITTAF website denotes “The dream of General Choi Hong Hi to implement the gray dobok was that his Taekwon-Do was differentiated from the Olympic Taekwon-Do and Karate.” However, while no one can say with certainty as Choi, Hong-hi has passed; he never once mentioned this in any of his articles. In all of the “Condensed Encyclopedia’s” no mention was made of this uniform, out of the many seminars including the famous St. Louis, USA International Instructors Seminar, no mention, and by then, you saw almost all of the now standard ITF uniforms. In his autobiography, he also never mentioned this grey uniform, nor in his long interview in Taekwondo Times by GM Kimm, He-young in 2000, prior to his death. It was also never mentioned in the official ITF magazines, or any other official publications.
However, Gen. Choi had said many times, and in print that a uniform wasn’t needed, he himself wasn’t known to usually wear a uniform while instructing. Usually he wore a button up long sleeve shirt a lot of times with a tie, slacks (dark) and usually light socks, and shoes. So, why the grey uniform? Its a great “marketing tool” for the goals of the ITTAF, however, a uniform does not make you a student, instructor or master of Taekwon-Do! Very few of the original uniforms are even around, several members of the Kido Kwan Discussion Forum have indicated they have or had one, I have not seen one since at least 1986-88, and the only remnants are those few photos that still are circulating, or in the 15 vol, and condensed books.
The bottom line, the grey ITF uniforms never caught on, they didn’t catch on because they were very impracticable, very uncomfortable, and with the ebbs and flows of the North Korean economy, they never would have been able to keep up with the supply and demand. It also was not in the best interest of the ITF to have only one supplier. It isn’t very ‘democratic’ to have only one source. It’s been a proven fact, that when you require everyone to use one source for equipment, you will not only run into manufacturing issues, but, everyone in every nation/local would pay a different price for the same uniforms. As there are tariffs/taxes and shipping charges that can also inflate the prices and so make them very impracticable.
The upside is that, the product would/should be consistent, as with today, at any Taekwon-Do event, you could have 20 or more differently constructed, made uniforms. Some could be silk screened, and 100% cotton, or 65%poly, with embroidered logos, and then some could have vinyl lettering instead of silk screen etc.
I would like to thank the following people who provided some of the information contained within, some of the people interviewed have asked to not be named directly. There are many people who have provided informaiton for this article, any omissions are in error please contact the author if any information was left out! MORE INFORMATION IS COMING, please refer back from time to time!
Grand master Nam, Tae-hi
Grand master Park, Jong-soo
Grand master Salleh Sebree
Grand master C.K. Choi
Grand master Park, Jong-ki
Grand master Kim, Suk-jun
Master Gwen F. Hall
This article is for reference and historical accuracy. It is not an article that is saying one uniform, or one manufacture of uniforms is better, worse then any other. Although, I would never want to wear the Vanolin/Juche Fiber uniforms, even though I have several tailored made suits of the same fabric.