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From Nuns To Fun - The History Of Nurses Uniforms

Dec 18, 2007
Go to any modern hospital in this day and age and it's hard to tell the nurse from the technicians from the assistants and cafeteria workers. They all wear scrubs! Some hospitals assign different color or pattern of scrubs so patients can readily identify the professional or what they do, but others just require scrubs and practical shoes. This certainly isn't the way nurses began.

Florence Nightingale

The first nurses were nuns in the middle ages who assisted physicians (often priests) and helped the sick and dying through the auspices of the church. They wore traditional robes and nun's habits as they tended the sick. When Florence Nightingale clarified nursing as a medical professional in 1851 she wanted a uniform that honored the nuns who had established the ideal. Nursing uniforms because a white robe with a blue cap and a white cap to honor the nuns head wear. This nursing standard would be in effect until World War I.

Nurses in Battle

During World War I the American Red Cross supplied most of the battlefield nurses and clothed them in the uniform of the Red Cross - a white blouse and skirt and smaller cap that was more able to allow the nurse to work without concern for her clothing. The cape was discarded as it made it harder for the nurses to work in tight quarters and in the field. The blouse had the traditional Red Cross on the back and was tucked into the skirt. After the war when nurses went back to clinics and hospitals, they took the new uniform style with them and started a look that would be in effect until the 1960's.

Equal Rights Hits Nursing

The white cap with the red stripe (to honor the Red Cross and its efforts for the nursing profession) along with a pure white dress or white blouse and skirt had been the standard for almost 40 years when women's liberation and the equality movement found its way into health care.

Some nurses felt the cap made them feel inferior to other medical staff - particularly doctors. Others felt it honored a valuable past and wanted to keep it. Nursing han changed from being a bedpan and hand holding profession to a highly technical skill involving IV's, drug administration and first line of care duties. Nurses began to feel that the cap and dress was not appropriate for professionals.

By 1980, the cap was optional, although each nurse was given one upon graduation. In the 1990's the nursing dress/skirt also became optional and by 1995 had been replaced almost entirely by scrubs.

The Fun

Nurses found scrubs easier to move in, work in it and made them feel less like a sex symbol and more like a medical professional. Colored scrubs began to be used when it was discovered patients responded positively to the soothing colors and fun prints, and now nursing scrubs come in many shapes, sizes and styles.

From an army of women who all looked the same to the individuality of cartoon printed scrubs, nursing uniforms have come a long way as well as the professionals who wore them.
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