A Brief History of the Nursing Uniform

Nursing UniformIn hospitals and health care centers today, scrubs have become the ubiquitous sign of a nurse or other medical professional. Comfortable, washable, and offered in a variety of cheerful colors, it’s easy to see why.

However, nurses haven’t always been offered such quick and easy clothing options. From the stereotypical white dresses (complete with caps) to huge aprons that covered regular attire underneath, nurses have been subjected to a wide range of uniforms throughout the history of the profession.

Form Follows Function

Nursing uniforms first came into being under Florence Nightingale, the woman responsible for organizing nurses to serve in the Crimean War in the mid-nineteenth century. Although nursing had existed prior to her intervention, it was done on a large, unorganized scale either by nuns or laywomen volunteering their expertise as general caregivers and mothers.

For this reason, nuns’ habits and traditional women’s clothing were all that was required as far as uniforms went.

As Nightingale transformed the field to one in which women were trained and professionals, so too did their attire. One of her students came up with the uniform associated with this era: the large white smock-like apron (a pinafore) worn over a dress and a crisp white hat to go along with it – not too far from what any servant of the time might be expected to wear.

However, in this case, the idea was that the uniform would help keep the women (and the nursing ward) clean, and help patients and doctors to identify the nurses. And because so many of the women came from working-class families, the nursing apron further helped them to keep the “street dirt” out of the medical setting.

Any variations to the nursing uniform for the next hundred years were minor. Some hospitals changed colors (usually to blue) or altered the aprons with ribbons that identified each nurse’s rank, much like a karate belt today does.

Due to the intense nature of WWI, nurses took a big step away from decorum and much closer to functionality at the time – and so did their attire. By the time the First World War came to an end, nursing was fast becoming a well-regulated trade, and the uniforms became shorter and less bulky.

The Modern Nursing Uniform

By the 1960s, nursing uniforms were much more similar to what we know of today. Although many women still wore skirts to work, caps were well on their way out, and the materials used to make the clothes were manufactured cheaper and with easy cleaning (and disposal) in mind.

Male nurses began to look more and more like doctors with loose pants and doctor-like coats, and women soon followed form. The scrubs that we know of today didn’t really become popular until the 1990s and in countries like the United States and England. In fact, in many European countries, the standard dress/apron for female nurses is still very common.

Today’s scrubs are typically made of light cotton, and come with drawstring pants and a loose tunic top. Shoes are equally comfortable and light, with rubber soles that maximize comfort and reduce the chances of slipping. Most nurses will tell you that as far as comfort goes, these styles can’t be beat, although they are virtually indistinguishable from most other medical professionals.


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