A History of Nursing Uniforms

Before the 19th Century, nursing was just another daily chore or duty of women folk. Whether in the home or in the street, women have always used their nurturing dispositions and instinctive nursing and healing abilities to comfort, and in some cases cure, the sick and injured.

In the home, women tended their own children and attended at the births of other children. In a time before hospitals, everyone could benefit from some knowledge of first aid and midwifery.

On the streets, unmarried women often traveled around poor districts where families could not afford a doctor’s house call, and performed services for free in the name of the local health facility or the city.

By the 19th Century, these nurses wore a servant’s uniform, with white gathered or banded cap and a long print dress with a white apron. Some nurses began to work for wealthy households, but most nursing, as a profession, still took to the streets. Therefore, nursing was not well respected for some time. The nurses of the age contributed somewhat to their own ill-repute. Without families, they often spent nights in their lodgings or in the hospital basements drinking and carousing.

By the 1840s district nurses had become more common, and started to gain some respect. Somewhat trained nurses who worked for the city or local health board wore a more ladylike and sometimes more matronly version of a servants outfit.

Since it was important for these newly trained nurses to be recognized on the street, an outdoor and indoor uniform system was designed. When the nurses walked the streets (or rode motorbikes!) in poor neighborhoods they wore cloaks, coats, and warm hats, and changed into their pretty white “indoor” hats and apron inside.

By 1880, Florence Nightingale’s work had turned nursing into a more reputable occupation, and she established a schooling system for nurses. They had to have distinct uniforms to separate them from common untrained women who acted as aids for the military or in the few hospitals.

A hat and band system was devised to identify nurses of different rank. Depending on the school, a nurse would star with bands of pink, blue, or other pastel ribbon, and advance up to a black band of ribbon. A trainee did not even have a hat until she passed three months of training. And even then, her hat could be revoked for poor behavior, like smoking in the hospital. In the future, this rank system would help usher the hats out of uniform chic. The practice of using them for discipline would eventually be deemed cruel.

At the turn of the century the uniform started to get even more differentiated from servants’ clothing. The breast and collar of the dress got more detail (pockets, button down style top, pointy collars), a bib covered the torso and gathered at the waist with an apron below. The fabric of the main dress was solid. This new tailored look was in contrast with the formless apron and dress the common servant wore.

Hats start to show influence of nun’s coifs, which brought the nursing uniform a borrowed look of respectability. The two professions merged at times however, and sister/nurses actually had some of the most amazingly designed and amazingly huge hats nursing would ever see.

At the start of the First World War, functionality became the most important feature in a nurse’s uniform. War brought untold numbers of casualties into the nurses’ tents, and care had to be fast and efficient. Bulky aprons sometimes disappeared altogether, cleanliness of appearance going by the wayside. Skirts shortened for better mobility, and short or rolled up sleeves became the norm.

The combination of this need for functionality and the desire to maintain a feminine look to the uniform produced after the wars the most familiar, and probably the most attractive and useful nurse’s uniform in history – the one we think of when we imagine a nurse.

Between the World Wars and in the brief period of prosperity in the 1930s, nursing fashion began to mimic fashion at large. Nursing was a popular profession for females at the time, and magazines and newspapers were constantly calling for new recruits. Women had only recently gone into the workforce in any significant number, and for a young woman nursing was an attractive and exciting option compared with, say, typing or sewing. It was a stable job, and what great clothes she got to wear!

In the 1950s hats as ranking identifiers began to be de-emphasized, as it was believed the system led to low morale among trainees. The hat was also considered feminine, and by no longer requiring it the hospitals hope to attract more male trainees. Uniforms became less starched and even less complex – bigger hospitals meant more patients and faster paces and the laundry couldn’t keep up. Simple folded hats and paper hats replaced the crown-like caps, and more comfortable, less form fitting designs appeared for the dresses. Everything had to be wash-and-wear.

By the late 1970s the hat had disappeared almost completely in the U.S. The new trend in nursing fashion, scrubs appear on the scene (for men anyway). Uniforms began to look more like regular clothing or in some cases like doctor’s coats. Hospitals had begun to employ aids and candy-stripers, and nursing staff did not wish to appear in uniform as these untrained staffers were required to do.

Today the differentiation between nurses, doctors, staff, etc. is only denoted by accessories and nametags. At most U.S. hospitals, everyone wears scrubs at all times to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. Doctors wear coats, nurses may sometimes don a warm-up jacket, but for the most part, men and women, doctors and support staff alike are all in some shade or pattern of loose drawstring pants and v-neck t-shirts. In Britain, uniforms are more widely used in nursing, and doctors still wear their own clothes outside of the OR.

Today’s scrubs are available in hundreds of styles, colors and patterns. Whether you are a woman who wants a fitted look, a male nurse who prefers a darker colored wardrobe than the one his hospital has to offer, or a nurse who wants to brighten a patient’s day with a whimsical pattern, the vast resources of nursing apparel available on the internet today are sure to offer even the most fashionable of nurses everything he or she needs to create the perfect nursing wardrobe.



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