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Nursing style history: What should nurses wear?

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Depending on who you ask, scrubs are either the greatest uniform ever invented or a fashionista’s worst nightmare. They’re super comfy, and available in different colors and designs from different suppliers at tons of price points. They’re even easy to care for.

But scrubs don’t flatter every body type and have limited design options. Though they’re uniform and at this point scream “medical professional” to the rest of the world, some question whether or not they are professional. Also, because all levels of medical professionals wear scrubs, a patient may not be able to tell the difference between an RN, doctor or tech.

In an article in The New Yorker, writer John Seabrook examines these issues while profiling women’s sportswear designer Yeohlee Teng. Below is an excerpt of the piece:

One morning last fall, the designer Yeohlee Teng was standing outside her office building, on Seventh Avenue at Thirty-ninth Street, waiting for a ride to the hospital. Yeohlee designs and owns the line of pricey but practical women’s sportswear and evening clothes that bears her name, and she has a small, loyal following that includes Susan Sontag, Oprah Winfrey, Patti Smith, and, now, Valley Hospital, a four-hundred-and-fifty-one-bed facility in Ridgewood, New Jersey. About eight months earlier, Yeohlee had signed a contract with Valley to redesign the garments worn by both the patients and the staff, beginning with Valley’s more than a thousand registered nurses. Today, she was going to present the Valley management with muslin prototypes of those uniforms.

As anyone who has been in a hospital in recent years knows, the white dress, which was for decades the emblem of a registered nurse, has all but disappeared. These days, the R.N.s wear “scrubs,” those loosely fitting cotton pants and V-neck tunics, and sometimes a short jacket with big pockets. Because scrubs, which are made in a rainbow of colors and a variety of prints, have become the standard hospital attire for nurses, orderlies, technicians, and maintenance personnel alike, patients have no easy way of knowing whether the person putting in the I.V. is a nurse, a nurse’s assistant, or a groundskeeper. Reintroducing uniforms would help to reëstablish a sartorial hierarchy in the hospital.

“Nurses are one of the most important aspects of health care, but in most hospitals you can’t tell who they are,” Yeohlee explained, speaking precisely, as she sat with perfect posture in the back of a town car heading for Jersey. Yeohlee, who was born in Malaysia, came to New York in the early nineteen-seventies to study at Parsons School of Design, and has lived here ever since. She represents herself as an anti-fashion designer, a clothing architect who is more concerned with comfort and maintenance than with glamour and display; she describes her clothes as “shelters.” Today, she was sheltering in a short black raincoat, black pants, a black knit top, black leather boots with thick work soles, and the kind of black rectangular glasses favored by people who are serious about design. “Uniforms make people feel proud of their work,” she continued, “and if you’re a highly trained professional, like a nurse, you want people to know it.” She thought for a moment, bowing her head so that her dense black hair concealed most of her face. “There’s a terrible nursing shortage going on right now,” she said, “and I have this romantic notion that if the uniforms looked more attractive more people would want to go into the profession.”

To find out what happens when Yeohlee meets with the staff, head on over to TruthAboutNursing.org, where they have the full story (for the original New Yorker article, click here). Then, in the comments below, give us your thoughts on the nursing uniform. Are you up for a change or pretty happy where you’re at?

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