It’s the classic image of the nurse, persistently depicted in films, television shows, and Halloween costumes: a woman in a white dress with white shoes — sometimes a white apron– and a starched white cap neatly placed on the top of her head. But have you ever wondered about the origins of the traditional white uniform? Especially since most nurses in the West these days seem to prefer sporting scrubs of varying colors and patterns instead. Well, wonder no longer, because this article is here to answer the question of why nurses wear white.
In the early 19th century, nursing was mostly a street profession. As such, nurses in those times wore typical servant uniforms, consisting of a black or printed gown, a white apron, and a white cap that was either gathered or banded.
With a rising need for nurses in the 1840’s and the work of Florence Nightingale, the woman considered to be the founder of modern nursing during the Crimean War in the 1850’s, nursing became seen as a more respectable profession. Schools for nursing were established and nurses began having their own uniforms to distinguish themselves. They had their own distinctive white aprons with pockets for medical instruments, and this is also around the time when the starched white cap first became associated with nursing.
A student of Nightingale’s designed the original uniform used by the students at her school of nursing. The original nursing uniforms were actually blue and different colored ribbon bands were used to show a nurse’s rank. The uniforms were derived from the religious garb worn by nuns. This was because before the 19th century, nuns were usually the ones who took care of the sick and injured. The resemblance lent nurses an added sense of respectability and feminine virtue.
New findings in the early 20th century about germs and the role they play in the spread of infection is what led to the wide adoption of the white nursing uniform. There was added effort put into implementing practices and procedures to prevent contamination from pathogens. As a symbol of this new emphasis on cleanliness, white attire was worn in hospitals.
World War I caused functionality to take precedence. This brought a number of changes in nurse uniforms, including shorter sleeves and no more bulky aprons. After the war, nurses wanted a uniform that combined femininity and functionality. This resulted in the light, short-sleeved white dress and simple white hat we all recognize as the classic nurse’s uniform today.
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