The origin of nursing uniforms is uncertain. One proposal considers the convents as the source. Nuns were the original nurses. As a result, their somber black and white outfits inspired the plain clothing worn by successive caregivers. Another suggestion looks, instead, to Florence Nightingale. She dictated the outfits for her nurses serving in the Crimean War. They wore gray tweed dresses featuring long sleeves and ample skirts. These early nurses also wore a brown scarf, while, on their head perched a white cap. These outfits provided the nurses a modicum of respectability. 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 fashion remained the same. Plain, simple, black, gray or brown dresses sported a white apron. Upon the head, nurses wore a matching white bonnet. It was always to be the fashion to wear an apron. A practical measure used by women throughout the centuries to protect their clothing while they worked.
During the early 1900s, the idea of white as the medical symbol of sterility emerged. 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 spreading of bacteria and viral infections. As a result, nurses began to dress all in white. At first, their shoes remained the only spot of color. These were black.
After the invention of white-leather shoe polish, shoes shared the color theme. Now, the entire outfit was white. The new look became the classic nursing uniform - conventional pleated white dresses paired with white hose, white shoes and the often despised pointy white cap. This looked remained consistent 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, at times, impractical outfit. Feminist nurses complained the color and stiff structure of the uniform limited their movement. They said they were responding unnecessarily slow to emergencies. 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, as they were in other mainly female professions. Nurses in advanced specialties began wearing lab coats. Nursing, for once, was paying heed to fashion. It was also a matter of practicality. Nurses fought for more practical and low maintenance clothing.
To the more modern nurses, the switch to comfortable scrubs or pantsuits 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 a number of other uniform options occurred. Slowly, shirts of all shapes and colors and patterns have become the norm. Prints became commonplace as did a wide variety of fabric choices. Bright uniforms are now popular among many nurses. They see them as a means of brightening or lightening patient 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 polyblends. There are also seasonal scrubs. Nurses can now dress up for almost any holiday or seasonal event. There are Halloween prints 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.
Nurse outfits can be trendy, retro or modern. The spectrum 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 mindboggling. As the old adage goes, "You've come a long way, baby."