The world’s first nursing school was established in London in 1860 and supervised by Florence Nightingale. Now, there are hundreds of nursing-related courses up and down the country. With these changes in education came changes in the way healthcare professionals worked and dressed. Here is a brief look at the history of women’s nursing uniforms in the UK, from aprons and caps to scrubs and Crocs.
Florence Nightingale began the use of the standard nursing uniform during the Crimean War (1853-56) after requesting better training and hygiene practices for nurses. This uniform consisted of a long grey dress made from tweed called a wrapper, with large, full-length sleeves and a white apron. A scarf with the name of the hospital was also worn like a sash, and a white cap was worn on the head. At this stage, no gloves or masks were worn.
World War I
Up until WWI (1914-18), the nursing uniform remained relatively unchanged. One of the primary reasons for change at this time was the sheer volume of patients needing treatment on the battlefield and hospitals. The bulk of aprons and dress material hindered nurses’ movement and ability to perform their tasks. As a result, the aprons were replaced with skirts, and small capes were worn to differentiate status. It is also worth noting that during the 1920s, the first male nurses began training. There was hugely unequal representation for male nurses, as there still is today.
World War II
WWII again saw another change to nursing uniforms, this time due to material shortages. Designed by Norman Hartnell, dressmaker to the Royal family, hemlines and sleeves were shortened, which also worked to allow more movement. Wraparound aprons and an armband with a red cross were also featured, as were caps and finally masks and gloves.
After the introduction of the National Health Service in 1948, uniforms continued to develop. The general style of dresses for nurses at this time was a blue and white striped dress, white collar and apron, white cap, and removable sleeves. Before this, hospitals had been able to determine their own uniforms, but with the shift towards the larger healthcare systems of the NHS, a more consistent uniform was introduced across the country to give more cohesion.
The Newcastle dress was a more fitted dress with a zip at the back and a Peter Pan style collar and was popular in the Northern NHS hospitals. However, it was restrictive, especially across the arms, but nonetheless was worn from the 60s-90s in several hospitals. Along with white and purple belted dresses, these were the last common nurses’ uniforms before trousers and scrubs came into play.
Where are we now?
Wearing trousers has become increasingly common for all members of the healthcare industry, as they are comfortable and practical and do not have excess material or restrict movement. With huge developments in textiles, a vast range of colours, fabrics, and styles are now available, making nurse uniforms much more inclusive. With the increasing popularity of private healthcare facilities, the items available have been adapted to be personalised and unique to that particular institution. Hospitals are gradually moving away from the rigidity of all staff wearing the same thing, with different coloured tunics denoting different professions, and some practitioners wearing white lab coats over their own clothing. Furthermore, female and male nurses can now wear the same uniforms, with unisex designs being introduced, which is has made nurse uniforms more inclusive.
A brief look at the history
This was just a very brief look into a long history of nursing uniforms in the UK, and there are plenty of alternative uniforms all around the world. Every country and culture has their own styles, guidelines, and uniforms for nursing staff, making the history of nurses’ uniforms very detailed and interesting to research.