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From Civil Servant to Classy Surgeon: The Evolution of Nurse Uniforms

Published 12 April 16 03:02 PM

From Civil Servant to Classy Surgeon: The Evolution of Nurse Uniforms

The next time you find yourself complaining about wrinkles in your fashionable Cherokee scrub top, take a quick moment to reflect on the fact that nurses’ attire wasn’t always so comfy – or convenient. The evolution of the standard nurse uniform has changed drastically over the last 200 years, as well as the public’s perception of what nurses are all about.

The Beginning


During the early 1800’s, nurses were held in lower standards than servants. The care of the sick was a responsibility relegated to nuns or seedy individuals, such as prostitutes, and little training or skill was required. When Florence Nightingale entered the scene during the Crimean War and demanded training for nurses, as well as a clean and safe environment for patients, a new profession was born.


One of Nightingale’s students designed the first recognizable nurse’s uniform, which included full gowns in black or prints with large white aprons and caps. Nursing students would wear pink, blue, or other pastel colored ribbon bands, while senior nurses and nursing teachers would don black ribbon bands to indicate seniority.



By the early 1900’s, nurses started wanting accessibility in their uniforms, and pockets in aprons grew in popularity. The top now boasted a pointy collar covered by a bib, cinched at the waist, and gathered around the skirt. The well-tailored uniform utilized a solid fabric. This uniform helped to distinguish a nurse from a servant, protected them against illness, and was also considered an expression of feminine virtue.


A large white hat and veil completed the look. Mimicking a nun’s habit, this bolstered respect for the industry and made it easy for nurses to be called upon by churches to assist in times of epidemic illness. Folk were beginning to realize that the role of nurses in the medical field was very important.


During World War II in the 1930’s and ’40’s, nurses were heavily utilized on all sides of the conflicts. Design aspects and distinction took a backseat to functionality. Nurses had to be fast in order to provide quick care for many injured troops. The uniforms evolved once again, from long gowns to a shorter, more manageable skirt length. This was also due to clothing material shortage during the war. Sleeves were rolled for easier movement. A cape, or tippet, was worn to signify rankings. The dresses were less form fitting and easy to wash, iron, and wear. Paper hats and simple folded hats replaced the elaborate caps with the veil.


Now, the uniform became a combo of functionality and femininity.

Pants for All

The reexamination of gender roles in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s brought more men into the nursing field. Pantsuits became in vogue, as they were in other mainly female professions. The use of surgical scrubs solved the problem of what to wear to work for male nurses. Scrubs were versatile, comfortable, and made it hard to transfer infection from patient to patient. 

The uniform was originally referred to as “surgical greens,” due to it color. The term “scrubs” came about because these outfits were worn in a “scrubbed” environment. In operating rooms, it was forbidden to wear any exposed clothing, such as t-shirts.

During this time, there were developments in fabric technology, including wash and wear cotton, Dracon, and cotton fabrics mix. Some companies experimented on different materials for nursing uniforms. Barco came up with warp knits, which is a fabric that enabled a comfy feel and easy laundry care in every Barco uniform.

Today’s Uniform

Today’s scrubs offer both comfort and convenience. Brands such as Barco, Dickies, and Cherokee make it effortless for nurses to look and feel good during a long shift. Healthcare facilities sometimes require different colors or patterns for the scrubs worn by nurses and doctors.

The evolution of the nurse uniform has reflected society’s view of the industry, as well as the increased roles and responsibilities nurses have in the medical world.



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    Occupation: Media, Marketing and Merchandising
    Setting: King of Prussia, PA
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