The white dress, apron, and cap are instantly recognizable as the common uniform for nurses. This nursing uniform is among the most iconic in the history of American professions.
Given that nurses haven’t worn such a uniform in decades, it surprises some nursing students that this white-clad image of a nurse endures. Why? What is it about this classic look that still defines contemporary nursing? The answer can be found with a little retrospection. The nursing uniform has gone through many changes throughout the years, often reflecting major advancements in the nursing profession. Until scrubs appeared, these uniforms had one constant: they were almost always white.
The white dress may only appear in movies and Halloween costumes these days, but the nurse’s cap, apron, and dress instilled a sense of pride in the work, and a sense of peace among patients. These clothes made a lasting, positive impact on our society. To understand modern nursing, it’s helpful to learn how the iconic nursing uniform developed — and how it’s endured even after the styles changed.
The birth of the first standardized nursing uniform came from none other than Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War. Not only did she bring attention to the plight of nursing by demanding proper training, professionalism, and better hygiene practices, she also created the first recognizable nursing uniform. These full-length, long-sleeved dresses and aprons were meant to protect nurses from illness. (Interesting fact: The dress was meant to protect against “fever,” yet nurses in those early days wore neither masks nor gloves.)
It wasn’t until World War II that shorter nursing dresses and sleeves were introduced. The era was marked by material salvaging and mobility — two factors influenced heavily by war — so it makes sense that the nurse’s uniform adapted with the times. And while the transition didn’t happen overnight, the shorter hemline eventually gave way to scrubs in the 1980s. The nurse pantsuit made an all-too-brief appearance in the 1970s!
The roots of this nursing uniform transition were twofold: the movement away from more feminine styles in the 1960s and the influx of male nurses in the 1970s.
Much like the long dress and apron, the nursing cap became a fixture under Florence Nightingale’s watch. The veil-like caps were originally fashioned after nun’s habits and were meant to cover the hair of the nurse who wore it. (Hats were customary for women in the 19th century; they were worn for sanitary purposes.)
It wasn’t until the dawn of the 20th century that the crisp, white hat perfectly poised on top of the head was popularized. Caps became more of a statement piece in the nursing uniform as the century went on. No longer were they meant to strictly cover hair; they were marked with a sense of dignity, dedication, and pride, and became more ornamental and status-related as a result. Capping ceremonies were a rite of passage and celebrated a nurse’s achievements and induction into the profession.
Caps fell out of favor and fashion starting in the 1970s. Most hospitals no longer required them at all by the mid-1980s. As the profession (and science, for that matter) evolved, so did the need to embrace more practical conventions. Caps fell off heads during inopportune times (sometimes into the toilet and other unsanitary places) and became more of a burden than a benefit.
The nursing cap can still be found at some schools around the country whose students don them at graduation and during capping ceremonies.
Since the 1980s and 1990s, scrubs have been a staple in hospitals and clinics. They are seen as a godsend to some healthcare professions; they’re comfortable, they come in many colors and patterns, they’re crease-resistant, and new fabrics and cleaners make them relatively easy clean.
Although many praise the modern scrub, some lament the fall of a standardized nursing uniform. It’s now harder to tell the difference between nurses, aides, technicians, and other personnel, and the old standardized uniform exuded the dignity and professionalism that all nurses possess.
The dress has become a bit of a relic, but some critics of the wear-whatever-scrubs-you-want era of today miss the distinguished white of the past. Sue Tobin, CPCC, MM, is one of them. She said, “While uniforms alone do not make the professional, they go a long way in helping us to stand out, better allowing us to do what we do best: heal, teach, support, comfort, nurture, and save lives.”