Nurses, soldiers, police officers and baseball players all have one thing in common; they wear uniforms. A uniform distinguishes the wearer from others while at the same time, by its very nature, largely unifies a group of individuals within a profession or organization. Aside from acting as a symbolic garment, uniforms tend to serve other purposes as well. They oftenare well suited to reflect the work required by the individual. For instance, uniforms worn by fire fighters are uniquely constructed to avoid injury. Likewise, the clothing favored by surgical doctors emphasizes cleanliness and the sanitary conditions necessary to repel infection. Uniforms can also minimize distraction as evidenced by those worn by youngsters in some private schools. So, it should come as no surprise that people practicing classical martial arts within an institutional setting, are required to wear uniforms.
The uniforms worn by the martial artist are ripe with meaning and purpose. They amplify tradition by remaining consistent with those worn by forbearers of a given art. They mirror deep seated philosophical doctrines and maximize the ability to endure extreme and frequently, violent motion. Finally, they serve as great equalizers of status whereby the university professor cannot readily be discerned from the elementary school student, the corporate president from the office worker.
Nomenclature for the uniform varies from culture to culture and thus, discipline to discipline. In taekwondo, the V-neck attire is referred to as a dobok; do translated as “the Way” and bok, “robe” or “training clothes”. In the Japanese and Chinese arts the predominant uniforms are commonly known as a gi or a hee fu respectively. Nevertheless, as with anything, there are exceptions to the rule. Often the traditional taekwondoist will wear a gi-style, wrap-around uniform, particularly in Moo Duk Kwan Taekwondo and ITF Taekwon-Do given the apparel of their founders Grandmaster Hwang Kee and General Choi Hong Hi. Moreover, we see many styles of garments worn in the Chinese disciplines.
Drilling down into the design of the taekwondo dobok, we see associations with Confucianism, Taoism and Korean culture in general. The distribution of angles that comprise the uniform unimpeachably flirts with the power of three; a number widely recognized in Asian society for its auspicious value. In its composition, particular attention is given to three distinct shapes; the waist line conforms to a circle, the hip area describes a triangle and the cuffs trace a square. The top of the dobok is constructed according to the same manner where three geometric patterns denote heaven (won-circle), earth (bang-triangle), and mankind (kak-square). Taken as a whole these three symbols represent the foundation of the Universe (samsilshingo). In paying tribute to the Ying/Yang (Eum/Yang in Korean), the ancient Taoist icon known far and wide to signify balance, harmony and the acceptance of constant change, the dobok is divided into two parts, top and bottom. Information provided by the Korea Taekwondo Association further introduces the notion that the dobok is inspired by the hanbok – the traditional clothing worn by native Koreans for centuries.
As is the case with the taegeuk-ki or the Republic of Korea national flag, the white color of the dobok is said to denote innocence, purity, dignity and most significantly, humility in the Confucian mold. Other shades simply cannot manifest this metaphysical concept. Here also, the concept of baekeuiminjok as Korea being the “white-clad nation”, resides. Subsequently, in the formative years of Kukkiwon taekwondo, the dobok was completely white. However, in the 1970s, to distinguish the black belt from the color or under belt practitioner, the uniform was altered by adding black trim to the V- shaped collar, while red and black trim was appended to the poom or junior black belt uniform. Likewise, according to Nowling, during the 1980s, in an endeavor by General Choi Hong Hi to distance taekwondo from the influence of Japanese martial culture, a limited number of blue ITF doboks were produced from materials originating in North Korea. Today, there are a variety of designs being considered by the Kukkiwon, the World Taekwondo Federation and the Korea Taekwondo Association in an effort to update the current fashion. Lastly, for athletes who regularly engage in martial sport competitions sanctioned by global organizations such as the WTF, ATA or ITF, a specific uniform is generally required for legitimate participation. This is particularly evident in the new extended V-neck dobok now mandated for poomsae competition by the WTF.
Customarily, regardless of pedigree, the dobok should always be kept clean, neat and pressed, reflecting a deep-seated respect for the art, ones school and its masters. Consequently, it follows that if the uniform along with the belt or tti, is worn in an orderly manner, the appearance will encourage precise technique during practice.
Armed with this information, why then do we see such a variance in uniforms and the associated insignia attached to them, from school to school and association to association, even within the same discipline? Speaking from the perspective of a taekwondo school owner, instructor and author, there are a number of reasons for these actions, some unpleasant to admit, others more benign.
Too often in the modern martial arts, dollars sadly trump tradition. To combat anemic enrollment and enhance retention, managers sometimes resort to using a rainbow of uniforms tied to belt rank as a motivational tool. While the novice may begin by wearing the basic white dobok or gi, rank advancement precipitates an obligation to purchase uniforms in an assortment of colors; blue, green, grey, red and black for example, representing an additional profit center to the school. Compound this with a further assortment of uniforms adorned with copious patches that designate membership in ancillary groups such as a Leadership Team or Black Belt Club, and the underlying purpose of the uniform begins to deteriorate all together.
Undoubtedly, martial arts of all styles have proven fertile ground for commercial gain in Western society. In truth, many of us who teach professionally have benefited greatly from what the founders would likely have considered an unmitigated aberration regarding the true purpose of their original missions – to transmit battle-proven defensive skills, infused with character development, to those worthy of their virtues uncorrupted by monetary distraction, personal aggrandizement or egocentric notoriety. By way of illustration, Kwe Byung Yoon, founder of the Han Moo Kwan and co-founder of the Ji Do Kwan, supported the belief that “martial arts instructors should hold a job outside of the martial arts to make a living”.
Nevertheless, for better or worse, the current business model proliferates unabated. Those who earn a comfortable living teaching taekwondo while remaining loyal to tradition by choice seem to be in the minority. Yet, in order to faithfully preserve the rich philosophy, history, customs and technical attributes unique to the national Korean martial art as they were initially intended, a conscious decision to follow the high road as it equates to principle and profit must be made by those in positions of authority. Maintaining a standard relating to the traditional uniform may seem inconsequential. Yet it is clearly a significant, symbolic step in the preservation of the art.
Author’s Note: All photographs, except where stated, are courtesy of Dynamics, Inc., 245-14 Jericho Turnpike Floral Park, NY 11001. 800-538-1995. www.dynamicsworld.com.
Master Doug Cook, a 6th dan black belt, is head instructor of the Chosun Taekwondo Academy located in Warwick, New York, a senior student of Grandmaster Richard Chun, and author of four best-selling books entitled: Taekwondo…Ancient Wisdom for the Modern Warrior, Traditional Taekwondo - Core Techniques, History and Philosophy, Taekwondo–A Path to Excellence, and Taekwondo Black Belt Poomsae: Original Koryo and Koryo, co-authored with Grandmaster Chun. Master Cook can be reached for lectures, workshops or questions at www.chosuntkd.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Even though Chong Soo Hong, Young Taek Kim and Kang Ik Lee are recognized as the founders of Moo Duk Kwan Taekwondo, Hwang Kee was the father of the original Moo Duk Kwan before its division in March of 1965.
 Nowling, Doug. Juche Fiber & the ITF. Totally TaeKwonDo, issue 56, p.23-28.