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Nursing Uniform History

The origin of nursing uniforms is uncertain. Some think that convents are the source -- Nuns were the original nurses! Their somber black and white outfits inspired the plain clothing worn by successive caregivers. Alternatively, one theory looks to Florence Nightingale, who dictated her nurses’ outfits during the Crimean War. They wore gray tweed dresses with long sleeves and ample skirts. These early nurses also wore a brown scarf with a white cap. Their dress, similar to that of middle class housewives, ensured they were not mistaken for cooks, laundresses and camp followers.

The American Civil War changed the color of the dress, but the style stayed the same –simple, gray, black, or brown dresses with a white apron. Nurses wore a matching white bonnet. During the early 1900s, white emerged as the medical symbol of sterility. White became a reflection of the medical profession's aspiration to portray their job as clean and sanitary. This is related to the increasing public awareness of the close link between cleanliness and the prevention of the spread of bacteria and viral infections. As a result, nurses began to dress in all white. At first, their black shoes remained the only bit of color.

After the invention of white-leather shoe polish, shoes shared the color theme. Now, the entire outfit was white. The new look became what we now consider the classic nursing uniform - conventional pleated white dresses paired with white hose, white shoes and the iconic pointy white cap. This look remained constant until the "revolution."

The 1960s changed the world in many ways, including how nurses dressed. A combination of factors, including the rise of feminism, rejected the crisp and often impractical outfit. Feminist nurses complained that the color and stiff structure of the uniform limited their movement. The cap was tossed and scrubs introduced. Some nurses still wore the now old-fashioned outfit but modified it to their needs. It was not until the 1970s, however, that change once again became necessary.

In the 1970s, hospitals ended the practice of laundering nurses' uniforms. Everyone became responsible for cleaning their own outfit. Pantsuits came into vogue. Nurses in advanced specialties began wearing lab coats. Nurses fought for more practical and low maintenance clothing.

To the more modern nurses, the switch to comfortable nursing scrubs was a welcome change. The new, modern outfits provided nurses with everything they needed: functionality, easy-to-care-for fabric, comfort and freedom of movement. Many felt that change was a "good thing." Over the years, in fact, scrubs have emerged as the overall favorite.

Once the door was open, other uniform options occurred. Slowly, shirts of all shapes and colors and patterns have become the norm. Prints became commonplace as have a wide variety of fabric choices. Bright uniforms are now popular among many nurses. They see them as a means of brightening or lightening their patients’ moods. For nurses working in children's wards, the variety offers nurses another tool in helping their young patients through their stay.

Fun animal prints are available in cotton and polyester blends. There are also seasonal scrubs. Nurses can now dress up for almost any holiday or seasonal event. There are Halloween scrubs covering a wide spectrum of themes and possibilities. Nurses can also celebrate Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July, Christmas, Jewish holidays and many other festivals and festivities. There are even patriotic uniforms. Medical uniforms can be trendy, traditional, retro or modern. The array of colors has gone far beyond basic white. Search on the net, go to a uniform store or leaf through a catalogue. The choices are mind-boggling. As the old saying goes, "You've come a long way, baby."

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