Why dress codes for nurses are making a comeback

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For much of the past decade, there has been a sort of “anything goes” policy in hospitals and nursing schools regarding how nurses and nursing students can dress and thereby express their individuality. That’s starting to change. Dress codes are coming back and, surprisingly, they’re not getting a lot of resistance from the individuals they target.

“The pendulum has swung back to dress codes,” says Kimberley S. Glassman, PhD, RN, a faculty member at New York University’s College of Nursing. “For a while, everybody took their eye off the ball and nurses looked awful…T-shirts, belly shirts, skin showing, scrubs way down on the hips…some really inappropriate things were allowed.”

Glassman says that because hospitals and nursing schools did let things slide for quite some time, now they’re having to do some backtracking, some damage control. Of course, they’re not mandating the old-fashioned white dress uniforms, the white duty shoes and the white caps—oh, wouldn’t that be fun? No, the new dress codes tend to be more along the lines of a particular color of scrubs, since scrubs have become the popular, ultra-practical, ultra-comfortable garb of nurses today.

Green and blue tend to be the typical scrub colors that hospital dress codes are requiring nurses to wear. Sometimes a patterned scrub top paired with a solid color scrub bottom is also allowed. And these regulations are about more than just keeping nurses from wearing what may be considered inappropriate. Many patients find it confusing when hospital staff are wearing such a range of “outfits” that it’s impossible to distinguish the nurses from the aides or the porters or the lab techs. When all of the nurses in a hospital dress in a similar style, the patients can more easily identify the nurses.

Regulations regarding piercings, tattoos and hair are generally included in dress codes. Deborah Weatherspoon, RN, CRNA, MSN, an assistant professor in the School of Nursing at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU), says that the school requires nursing students to cover tattoos when they’re in clinical settings. She agrees with the policy. “Body art is a personal decision, but I think there are accepted norms that we should apply within our profession.”

The dress code for nursing students at MTSU is actually quite specific. Body and facial piercings have to be removed. The only pieces of jewelry allowed are a wedding band, a watch and one pair of plain stud earrings. There are guidelines about beards, mustaches, hair accessories, fingernails…some might argue that this doesn’t leave much room for individuality.

But, as Glassman points out, nursing isn’t geared toward the expression of individuality. “Nurses aren’t artists. They’re health professionals, delivering care to individuals who are ill and in vulnerable states. The patients don’t get to choose the nurses who are going to care for them, so I think it’s important that nursing students and practicing nurses understand the impact that their appearance might have on patients.”

J. Deane Waldman, MD, MBA, a professor of Pediatrics, Pathology and Decision Science at the University of New Mexico, says, “Anything that disrupts the ability of the care provider to make emotional contact with the patient is detrimental to the therapeutic relationship. True for nurses just as for doctors.” She adds that if any appearance issues put off the patient, those issues “get in the way of the very reason the patient sought medical care.”

Weatherspoon says the same applies in interview situations. She advises her nursing students to go the conservative route when they’re looking for jobs—facial piercings out, tattoos covered, hair neatly groomed. “You don’t know who’s going to interview you or what his or her cultural background is,” she says.

The interesting thing is that nursing students and nurses aren’t generally taking issue with the “new” dress codes. Glassman says that although she does have to deal with the odd dress code issue with her nursing students, it doesn’t happen often. “Nursing is a traditional profession, so it tends to attract a more traditional type of person,” she explains.

There are definitely many advantages to dress codes, and if they help nurses make those important emotional connections with their patients…well, that’s pretty significant. And besides, there’s all that off-duty time when you can express your individuality, bare what you want and wear what you want. So, all in favor of dress codes?

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Cynthia Dusseault

Cynthia Dusseault is a professional freelance writer with both a health and an education background. A former medical radiation technologist and elementary school teacher, she realized that no matter what she did, she was drawn to any task that involved writing, so she decided, over a decade ago, to write full-time. Since then, she has written for a variety of magazines and websites including Nursing PRN, National Review of Medicine, University Affairs, Your Health, Education Leaders Today, Today's Parent, Children's Playmate, WeightWatchers.ca and many more.She has written about topics such as asthma, genital herpes, circumcision, teleradiology, body art, learning disabilities and exercise trends, and she absolutely adores the fact that writing—particularly doing the research for the articles she writes—makes her a lifelong learner.

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12 Responses to Why dress codes for nurses are making a comeback

  1. Kelly

    I think the problem between being able to distinguish nurses from dietary from houskeeping happened when all those depts were also allowed to wear scrubs. I think houskeeping in hospitals ought to dress like houskeeping staff you see in hotels. I think Repsiratory staff ought to wear a single solid color, as should members of PT/OT. Let us nurses wear a variety of colors! I get compliments on my scrub attire all the time from my patients. I also make sure to introduce myself to my patients as their nurse. I’ve yet to have a patient confuse ME for a houskeeper.

    • Toni RN

      What do we have name tags for. Mine says RN in huge letters! I would love to go back to fun scrubs. I have to wear Navy Blue!

  2. RosieO

    It is sad that some people pushed the dress code too far by wearing objectionable garb. I like to think of my colorful and whimsical patterns as part of the treatment plan. When a person is looking at my jacket to find a picture of her dog, she is not thinking about the shot I am preparing to give her. It is an icebreaker and a conversation starter. Distraction therpy. So sad to have to go back to plain solid colors.

  3. katie

    @kelly- well aren’t you lucky!

  4. sasa

    I think we should wear colorful scrubs. I mean as long as their scrubs we should feel comfortable. We should not look sloppy. In the above comment about not mistaking me for a housekeeper…I just want to say that I do not condone that elitist nursing attitude. Whether we clean the patients room or themselves, it is all important work. No one is above anyone even if our responsibilities are different.

  5. Tessa

    I’m proud of the work I do, and I worked hard for my education. Nurses should look different than housekeeping, and different from doctors, because we are! I agree with a uniform color for each speciality as we have at our hospital. I think patterned scrubs are juvenile and inappropriate in an adult setting. This profession is still fighting to be taken seriously so please don’t demean us with sloppy, or silly attire.

    • HolyPeas RN

      Nah, I disagree. It could just be an age difference but I don’t think that hospitals have to go to all white or some other drab color to be professional. The problem is no one wants to single out the worst offenders so they pass these sweeping (and depressing) rules for everyone. No, showing up to work looking sloppy is NOT acceptable, but I would say that is the minority of nurses who do that.

  6. GrannyRN

    You are 100% right!
    EVERY profession/corporation has its IMAGE and nursing is no different. How we present ourselves to our ‘audience’ is reflected in how we are perceived within the first 15 seconds, also known as the ‘First Impression’.
    There is a movement to return to the all-white uniform to distinguish nurses from non-licensed staff and most units have their own ‘scrub color’ such as ICU/PACU areas. In one of the large trauma centers near my home, the nursing staff further designates the ‘charge nurse’ by having that RN wear a RED jacket. Highly visible AND recognizable-easy to find in a hurry!
    We have worked VERY hard to establish our choice of career as a profession. Let NURSES be the ones to make and keep a ‘dress code’ worthy of the respect that we deserve!

  7. EllenRN

    Been in this profession 27 years. Grew up in nursing in Canada with whites and caps. Nursing in England with very strict dress codes also. Came to the USA 12 years ago. Shocked at the lack of professionalism in dress within this country. You ARE as you appear. When you wear cartoons, you appear childish. When you are given a little slack in dress code, there are many whom take that small slack at extend it further to a point of inappropriate. I see it every day with belly’s hang out to show belly button rings and tattoo’s. I’ve always been complimented on my professional dress in the work place. My patients love the fact that I wear solid color scrubs and white jackets. They KNOW who I am. I would LOVE to see the return of one solid color for RN’s. If you all want to be noticed for your dress, try a professional dress that the patient will notice.

  8. D.Gordon

    How totally refreshing it would be to see nurses return to all white. Then we would know the differnce between housekeeping, medical assistants, cafeteria etc. If would look more professional also if they returned to ALL white, which includes white shoes. We can forgo the white hat, and starch, but ironed uniforms are beautiful. It looks like you are there to do a job and NOT that you just grabbed your uniform out of the dryer and thru it on. Ladies, we worked for years to get where we are, Don’t throw away your recognition by looking like the cook in a drive in or a waitress. Look like a nurse. After all that’s what gets you reqpect.

  9. P Welsh

    Federal Labor laws state that if you require a certain dress code you either; provide the uniform or you provide a monetary allowance to purchase uniforms on a yearly basis, and maintain them…i.e. clean/wash them. Police officers are required to wear uniforms. Their departments take care of the cost of purchasing and cleaning them. Can you see my employer paying for that…with a staff of over 4000 nurses! Be careful what you “require”. It could be very expensive.

  10. stream26

    you should try to look professional. Anything that makes you feel confident, A suit, or jacket and pants, skirts I was told were ok, but pants are better, use your own judgment, and no open toed shoes.hair should be out of the way,if you have long hair. I have a bob http://hairstylezz.com/best-asymmetrical-short-long-bob-hairstyles/2/ and often make a braids