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Nursing Uniforms Through History

The iconic nurses’ uniform, to many people, is the crisp white dress, hat, and stockings seen in countless films. This wasn’t the case, though, for most of the history of the profession. Here’s how nursing uniforms have evolved over the past 150 years of the profession.

In the mid to late 1800s, nurses looked an awful lot like nuns, with long headgear and black dresses that looked like habits. Of course, all women wore long dresses then, so that part isn’t terribly surprising. The other big influence on this style, though, was the belief that covering the neck, arms, and legs completely would offer some shielding from infectious disease. Because nurses did not cover their faces or their hands, though, this “shielding” did little to protect them.

Nursing evolved over the next few years from a volunteer activity to a profession and the uniform standardized with this change. It included a white apron, worn over a dress and a hat. Red cross-adorned arm bands were added in the late 1800s. The hat and the armband were meant to help patients and others identify nurses, while the dresses and aprons were still believed to be protective.


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This standard nursing uniform remained relatively unchanged for decades. The only changes were really based around the length and cut of the dresses nurses wore. These changes followed the fashion of the time, with shorter dresses coming into fashion for nurses (and women in general) in World War II.


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As the number of men in the profession grew in the 1960s and 1970s and fashions changed, nursing uniforms became less gendered. Scrubs became the uniform of choice for most nurses. In addition to being something that all nurses, regardless of gender, could wear, the switch had other practical advantages. Scrubs were easier to move in, allowing nurses to more easily care for patients without having to worry about concerns of modesty. Scrubs were also considerably easier to care for, as they didn’t require starching.

Scrubs have changed a lot since the 1970s, even though they are still the uniform of choice. They are now available in a wide variety of colors and prints. Women’s scrubs, especially, have changed even in how they are cut. Instead of being rather straight-lined and unisex, today’s scrubs come in a variety of form-flattering shapes, including fitted, high-waisted, and wrapped. You can even find scrubs designed and modeled after those worn on popular television shows.

Today, scrubs are still the norm, though many institutions are tweaking their dress codes. In some hospitals, nurses wear a certain color, to distinguish them from other employees. Some hospitals require that nurses wear a certain color based on department. Some hospitals are even going back to requiring that nurses wear white, though they haven’t yet returned to skirts, hats, and stockings.

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February 5, 2013 This post was written by Categories: ClothingScrubsUniforms Tagged with: NursesScrubsUniforms
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