Historic nursing uniforms: the good, the bad and the ugly

Ah, the portrait of a nurse.

The freshly starched dress, that sharp little hat (oh, that hat!), the coveted pin; remnants of an era long forgotten.

Or are they? Just a few decades back, nurses were required to wear this cap. They had no choice but to button up that pinafore apron every day. And for what? Certainly not for sterilization, though that may have been the intent back then. Now we know better.

Join us as we remember the uniforms of decades past — and smile, because we’ll never force you to wear these outfits again. Ever. Unless you want to, of course.


1854 – American Civil War

To the left is an 1856 lithograph of the hospital ward at Scutari where Florence Nightingale worked (via Wikipedia).

In 1854, Florence Nightingale served during the Crimean War (one of the bloodiest wars in history), along with a staff of 38 volunteer nurses.

It was not until after the war that she discovered and advocated that sanitary living conditions were of great importance. There was not yet a nursing uniform, but instead a full-length dress similar to that of a nun.

Illustration in Harper’s Weekly, 1862 article The Influence of Women

The nursing uniforms of the late 1800s were modeled after a nun’s habit (as pictured on the left). They were worn in order to properly identify nurses, and to provide a full-length, “fever-proof” shield to protect the visiting nurse from infection. You’ll notice, however, that although the gown covers most of the body, the nurse is not wearing gloves or a mask.

Lillian Wald, founder of the Visiting Nurse Service of New York

Although Florence Nightingale’s work served as an inspiration for nurses in the American Civil War, her teachings on sanitation were not convincing to her colleagues at the time.

Nurses continued to wear the long “fever-proof” gowns, with hats that served little purpose beyond identification. No gloves or masks were worn.

Pictured on the right is Lillian Wald, a nurse, social worker, and public health official in the late 1800s to early 1900s.

First nurses at Sternberg Hospital, Chickamauga Park, Georgia, August 1898. Again, no masks or gloves, but the same full-length gown and apron to protect against infection, plus a new form of identification: the arm cuff with a large red cross.

In 1908, the Navy Nurse Corps was formed. Below is a photo of the first 20 Navy nurses to ever serve the United States.

Photo # NH 52960 “The Sacred Twenty”


Unidentified British Nurses Posing

As we can see on the left, the British nursing uniforms of the early 1900s were very, very similar to the ones seen in America at the time.

If we take a look around the world at this time, almost all nursing uniforms were the same: the long gown to protect from infection, the apron for the same reason, and some type of hat or armband to identify oneself as a nurse.

Finnish nurses in 1918 (below) had a similar uniform, but favored the more nun-like, long head covering.

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35 Responses to Historic nursing uniforms: the good, the bad and the ugly

  1. christine viehl

    Well, now the hospitals want nurses to go back to the white because patients can’t distinguish the nurses from the techs. Are we going bckwards?

  2. yes that would be going backwards and i have heard nothing of the kind.. wearing white is not alright i could not even imagine…

  3. Meghan

    our hospital requires us to wear all white. the reason is exactly what christine said, so the patients can tell we are nurses and not, for example, respiratory. I guess the big RN tag I have to wear doesn’t do the trick…

  4. Barbara

    Even though we have a LARGE RN under our names on our badges, but we still have to wear only white or purple (our hospital colors) our techs wear all purple, evs maroon, transporters wear black, OR staff wears teal and x-ray and resp. therapy wears tan. That being said I am STILL asked if I am the doctor even after I walk in a room and say, Hi, I’m Barbara and I will be one of the nurses helping you out tonight.!! HELLO colors don’t matter, patients still ask who you are!

  5. CINDE


  6. Nurses are professional people and the hospital has no right telling us what to wear! Hospitals have no authority over nurses other than what we give them and we have let them take over our profession. Hospitals had total control of nurses during the Training School and Diploma years. The hospitals had to give up a lot of control when nursing education moved out of the hospitals and into the universities. The hospitals dictate our staffing, our practice and what we wear because we let them. The sooner nurses realize hospitals control us because we let them, the sooner we will be able to advance the profession – until then, they will continue to tell us what colors we can wear as well as anything else we let them.

  7. leonora coombs

    We still do in Jamaica

  8. PattyG

    Get a grip young one. White is not bad!! When we had to wear white, (yes, even dresses, before we broke in pants for you) Nurses looked more professional. The colored scrubs look sloppy, lazy, and cheap. I started to wear scrubs when i started to work in the OR. We wear them there, so we can easily change… and they were washed in the hospital laundry , not to be worn any where but the hospital. When we left the OR, we had to either change, or cover with a lab coat. Our pts are asleep, Your pts are awake, and many older pts cannot remember what color means at what hospital. I say go back to white!!! If I were to work on the floor again, I would.

  9. Marie

    The movement to push RN’s back to all white, comes from the Ivy Tower types, the professors, most of whom haven’t cared for a real patient in decades. The reason for it is beyond me. I started out over 32 years ago, still required then to wear a white DRESS, white hose, shoes but thank God no cap. You get dirty. You LOOK dirty. How can you climb up on a bed or onto the floor, in various aspects of work, dressed all in white, and finish the shift looking half way clean?? I think all nurses should fight, via the different RN associations, against this. Obviously, the hospitals CAN make you adhere to a dress code. The start of all of it was the on the PROFESSIONAL end of RN teaching, in universities, who should not determine what we wear (beyond minimal standards of good taste etc.)

    In the article were some odd points of view: ALL women wore long dresses until after World War I, as well as long hair. Post WWI was a time like the ’60’s with a whole new attitude.

    Lister and germ theory weren’t around in Nightingale’s day.

    The post World War I influenza epidemic was worldwide, not just in Boston. Excellent short book: “Flu” by Gina Kolata.

  10. mardi

    Let’s go back to white, at least we can bleach them or hydrogen peroxide stains out. With most colored scubs you get a stain its hard to get out.

  11. linda leeson

    I have been a nurse for 30 years, in an acute care setting.. I have always worn my cap, a white uniform, white pantyhose and shoes. I choose this uniform because it helps keep professionalism at the bedside and promotes a sense of security with my patients. I am easily identified as a nurse, and ALL my patients and family members comment continually ‘ how nice it is to see a nurse look like a nurse’. Never once have I received a derogatory comment on my uniform. What some of the new grads wear now is an embarrassment. When they squat down, their thong shows, they wear fake decorated nails, body piercings, ear lobe plugs, chew gum like a cow,talk continually on their cell phones, and even answer them at the bedside. First impression is everything. A patient feels vulnerable enough. Looking unprofessional will sends the wrong message. How I look, is how I nurse. My personal choice and I am sticking with it.

  12. Sara

    I think everyone has a choice, employee, employer etc. If you don’t agree, too bad. I choose to wear colored scubs when allowed, where allowed. I have changed jobs every 5-7 years and its not that important. I think it a privedge to be a nurse. My mom graduated from Mt.Sinai in NY in the 50’s and she had no choice but to startch her uniform everyday, Cool… I’m an RN for 17 years, nothing scares me now, even white.

  13. Lorraine

    Where I work…we still wear the nurses cap…the patients and their families love it…just wish I did!

  14. Deneen

    It’s not what you wear but how you practice your profession………………………………………………….

  15. Judy S

    I graduated in the 60’s and what an honor it was to done the white cap with the black band and to finally wear the white nurses uniform- later we wore white pant sets- better for climbing on beds etc. My son is also an RN and wore the white uniform until the hospitals he worked in had colors to wear (green and then blue)- Many changes have occured in nursing and I think choice matters. When I work now I wear a white lab coat- again it is white.
    The white uniform identifies you as a nurse and thats a comfort to a patient.

  16. Char

    Hate to say it,but equal rights means that when men entered nursing, the decision was made to delete caps , white hose and white shoes.( whew!) I thought the hats were not as regularly washed, and tended to get knocked ascew against traction, curtains, etc…. Personally, white is not a flattering color for some. It makes me look ill.
    Also, on a different subject, sad to say, nursing wages would probably not advanced to the point they are today, if not for men entering the profession. 4 year degree or not.
    Today’s nurses are very much more scientifically and technologically skilled, but the personal care and doing something about the patients concerns is still so very important. The patient needs your skilled assistance not your perfect charting.

  17. Patients are in a stressed, uncomfortable and unfamiliar enironment.
    A nurse that LOOKS like a nurse is at once instantly recognized, and respected — because she looks professional. I know looks can deceive and I have seen professional looking nurses who were incompetent to exit the dampened grocery sack.
    Let me quote a fellow nurse who wore nothing but dresses, until one day she tried wearing a pant suit to work:
    Her little boy came bouncing downstairs to go to school and stopped dead when he saw her, and big tears started rolling down his cheeks.
    Elizabeth said, “What’s wrong, Bubby?”
    Little Bubby sobbed, “Mommy, does dis mean you’re not a nurse no more?”

  18. Louis

    I am a surgeon with a military background. The first impression is lasting, and as a surgery resident, I will always fondly remember one very experienced nurse in that late 80’s that continued to wear her starched white uniform with the hat & her nursing school pin. She was brilliant, and the most respected nurse in the surgical ICU. The smart interns and residents (those that didn’t think they knew all the answers) looked to this nurse in the starched white dress to learn what needed to be done with a crashing patient. I believe we have become too casual with our dress not reflecting a professional attitude and posture.

  19. Brian

    Who cares? If you dont like what your employer wants you to wear, find a new employer. Jeesh, like a bunch of school kids!! I enjoy wearing colored scrubs cuz I’m a dork, but if they told me I had to wear white, I’d say “OK” because they A) sign my paycheck B) employ me and C) it’s JUST A UNIFORM!!… Maybe we should go back to fig leaves


  21. Cindy

    I have been a Pediatics RN for over 20 years. Children are often scared of the white uniform. If my Mickey Mouse or Tweetie scrub tops put them more at ease – I will be able to assess their needs and provide them with the care they deserve.

  22. Jayne

    WellI for one LOVED my whites AND my hat . I was older when I earned the RIGHT to wear them. I resent that every Sally, Sue & Sarah & every Tom ,Dick,& Harry can just go buy scrubs & wear them to do ANYTHING. No one can tell a nurse from a dishwasher anymore. I have been both in my lifetime — both are honorable, honest jobs BUT nursing is a profession for which I put in long hard hours & years to be a part of. I am proud of what I am . I do not want to be mistaken for somrthing else. I am also very proud of my cap. It represents my school as well as my position. My stripe is something I also earned the right to wear. There is no professionalism or pride in what you see today. Scrubs are a barrier againist infection ? Not unless they are kept in hospital ( and laundered there also) and nurses are required to change into them as they come on duty as we used to be required to do so in maternity & surgery.

    • ShariDCST

      Touché, Jayne! I agree wholeheartedly with your feelings about what you worked so hard to be privileged to wear on your job. There’s something to be said for being involved in a learning situation that not only teaches you valuable skills, but also provides rewards for passing through various stages. It gives you a real goal – something you can reach out and touch, and know that if you work for them, they can be yours as well.
      I remember in the mid 60’s to the mid 70’s, when I had a lot of contact with hospitals and their nursing staff due to some childhood medical dilemmas.
      Every RN wore all white uniforms, hosiery, leather nursing shoes, and that coveted cap. The beautiful (and a few quite unique) designs and styles there were! Ruffled edges; upside down cucake liners; wide, large wings that looked like they could fly; even Mortar Board styled caps; and the standard, traditional one- or two-button folded cap with cuffs of various widths.
      Every RN who wore the black stripe (or stripes, in some cases) in various widths from ⅛” wide to the 1½” really wide black velvet, and some in the ribbed grosgrain type) across the width of the cuff, or vertically up and down one or both sides; or even up one side, across the top of the cuff, and down the other, outlining the edges of the cuff, just fascinated me. But the presence or lack of a stripe wasn’t always the answer, because many schools of nursing didn’t have the black stripe on their caps for their graduates. Their caps started out, and remained throughout their existence, as plain white without any adornment. Some schools of nursing marked the passage of their students with pastel ribbons of different colors for each year. Others authrized a black stripe for their Senior student nurses, as another form of identification.
      There were so many, and my area of the Eastern Seaboard had numerous schools of nursing, both three year hospital based, and University level. There were also quite a few variations, combining the nursing courses taught in the hospitals by their SON staff, after the student completed all of her/his academic prerequisites at a local University or Community College.
      Each nursing school had its own student uniform and cap to identify their own student nurses, and caps for graduates. My area was also saturated with all five of the branches of the military, which brought in innumerable families, sometimes including nurses as members of those families, and they came from all OVER the country! So the potential existed to see examples of every conceivable style and type.
      I became truly enamored of those lovely caps, and at the age of 7, when we were constructing the traditional white “Pilgrim lady” caps, I could suddenly see that with a little tweaking here and there, I could make my ownand the same

      • ShariDCST

        Sorry – my screen refreshed for some weird reason, but fortunately my remarks were posted, not wasted! 😱
        In the process though, it posted before I could correct the bit at the end. I’m sure what I was saying should have come out something like the caps became the model for the newest ones I taught myself to make at home for the longest time! No white paper was safe at my house for ages!! And I was 8 at the time.

  23. Jayne

    When I worked peds part-time I found that the chiidren loved my FULL uniform — Hat, & All whites. Never had a child afarid of my whites in over 8 years on various peds wards. I had to wear ” hospital ” scrubs in my full time job on the maternity ward.

  24. No matter how white your nursing uniforms are or how colorful your scrubs, what matters most is the service offered to the patients.

  25. I graduated in 1969, and was so very proud of the white uniform (wore pink as students), and the black band on my coveted cap! About 2 yrs ago, I felt the need to go back to the white uniform and cap with black band. The response was mixed, but the doctors were delighted, the patients were excited to see a “real” Nurse, and there were a few Nurses who felt that I was archaic. Okay, I went back to my scrubs after 18 months of the whites. I realized that that time was gone……forever. I continued, though to wear only Navy and White at work. It just felt more professional than all the ;prints and colors. Soon our hospital put all the RN’s in navy. Unfortunately they also put the LPN’s in navy, so there was still some confusion on the patient’s part. I believe that we have let hospital administrations dictate to us without even a whimper from Nurses (it seems that most of us are just made that way), and the caps were pulled off in order to let the hospitals use LPN’s in place of RN’s as they are a cheaper cost to them (the color on the cap would have distinguished the LPN from the RN). Patients don’t know the difference……but we DO. Our profession is going to continue to suffer both monetarily and by job placement until Nurses find it in their guts to stand TOGETHER and say NOOOOO.
    I recently did so, and was fired for it……so what? I already have another job lined up and ready to go to., but the hospital I was forced to leave, knows that I will not take their unethical “crap”. Imagine if the whole department stood together and did the same? Ther IS power in numbers….it just seems impossible to get the numbers with Nurses. Ever ask yourself why????

  26. Marty

    The real issue here is not the color of our uniforms, but in the character and professionalism of her person wearing them. You could take a careless, not- so- swift, poorly skilled nurse and dress him or her up in a pristine white outfit and cap and the patients would erroneously think they were in Nurse Heaven! On the other hand, you can take an extremely intelligent, highly skilled and dedicated nurse and put them in a neat and clean pair of scrubs and they will STILL be an extremely intelligent, highly skilled and dedicated nurse, no matter what they are wearing! Professionalism comes first and foremost from within, from character!! A person with real character and professionalism wouldn’t dream of going to work looking sloppy or with their thongs or cleavage hanging out! I feel the first step in promoting professionalism is to teach it’s principles with fervor in our nursing classes, from “Day One of Nursing 101” and that student nurses should be considerably marked down for failure to achieve a professional demeanor. And medical facilities also need to focus on the same thing in the same manner. Administrators need to be tapping that sloppy looking, wrinkle shirted, messy haired heavily and inappropriately tattooed and bejeweled nurse on the shoulder and say “EXCUSE ME! This is NOT a club or a fashion show – either dress appropriately or find another job!!” This is by no means to say that just as much importance should not be placed on furthering their education or expanding/honing their skills and improving bedside manner. Sure, fashion mores have changed throughout the years, but there is virtually NO substitue for the mental peace of mind and feeling of security that comes when you are a patient and you can see as well as sense a medical professional who is just that.

  27. Deb

    I graduated in 1975 from a great diploma school. I am now working on my MSN in education.Clean solid scrubs in a muted color of greens, or blues are best in my opinion. Leave the prints for peds and the nursery.The ancillary staff can have the rest of the colors. We need something to set us apart from housekeeping. While I miss my cap, pin, and clinics, they are not practical in the ED , ICU and other critical care areas.It would be wonderful if we could change and have the hospitals do laundry as they did back in the dark ages but those days are gone. I e the distinction of having a color for my unit alone. The ED I work in has royal blue scrubs for docs and RNs with long white lab coats. Embroidered with red lettering, names and titles.Royal golf shirts for the techs with white pants.Secretaries have royal jackets. Everyone in the hospital knows who we are and where we are from.More importantly so do the patients.RNs are given1 lab coat and 4 sets of scrubs on hire/full time.You give them back when you leave.Good deal.

  28. anita

    I know our CCO wanted us to wear white- I am so thankful that we were able to stay in navy blue. So much cleaner. Other hospitals I have worked at had different colors for different departments. I think that is the best way to handle it. Currently we are all in navy blue and no one- including staff can tell the difference between departments. When hospitals do this- they should not punish the nurse by making her wear white. There are other ways to handle it.

  29. Arlene Callithen

    Have any of you nurses been a patient lately? Well
    I have !! It is disgusting how the nurses and most of the staff are dressed. I think you young nurses are forgetting that people get old…their hearing and vision is diminished.It is difficult to read your name tag. I am not advocating to go back to the starched white that the girls of my time wore but for God’s sake remember some day you will be older and you will have difficulty in vision and hearing not to mention memory deficits. People don’t forget that the NURSE wears white. If I was working today I sure would want my patients to be able to identify me from housekeeping, dietary etc.. I worked long and hard to be an RN and am proud of it. I worked for 35 years. I believe that your appearance makes a big difference to patients. It did even when we were wearing the white uniforms and caps… if your shoes were dirty and your uniform was dingy gray and your hair wasn’t washed and your nails were not clean.. believe me the patients noticed. I have never regretted the way I was taught to be a nurse. It made me a better in all that I have done in life. I didn’t think I would ever get old either when I was in my twenties but the years go fast and here I am giving advice.. LOL.. But, I believe everything I said with all my heart..

  30. Andrea

    I despise white uniforms. They are antiquated and too easily stained. Bleaching just yellows them. I have read a few of the comments here where nurses talk about still wearing the white dress and cap. I know that while senior citizens may appreciatethis look, if I was their patient I would be uncomfortable. What it comes down to is quality and sincerity of care given. Several positions I have held I was lucky enough to be able to wear casual street clothes and I still provided great care to my patients.

  31. paula

    i am a hospice nurse my pts. are glad to see me in my scrubs they realize i am there to help them and don’t seem to care what I wear nor do their families. I love what I do and what I wear.

  32. rwilbo

    In my hospital nurses wear navy, I always iron my scrubs and make sure that my essential parts are covered, I think it would be very difficult to wear white scrubs at work when I draw labs, start IV’s and get peed and puked on at work, with only one set of scrubs to wear, My patients know that I am their nurse because of my uniform, badge, and the fact that I introduce myself and write my name and number on their bedside board, I frequently round on my patients and remind them that I am their nurse and I am there if they need anything, I think my identity as a nurse comes from the job that I perform and not from the color that I wear.

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