The nurse who blings out her uniform

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What we wear and how we look can be contentious subjects. It seems like every hospital has a different dress code and norms about what is acceptable attire. Then there are some individualistic nurses who just have to express their own inimitable flava…. What are some of the sartorial styles you’ve seen—the good, the bad and the ugly?
The following is an excerpt from the chapter “Comfort Measures” in Making of a Nurse by Tilda Shalof.

Most nurses say they wish to be known by the relationships they have with patients, not by their clothes. I’ve seen many nurses individualize their uniforms by wearing scrubs in ice-cream colours of raspberry, lemon and grape. There are those who wear lab coats decorated with teddy bears, angels or lollipops.

Later that day after the incident with the visitor passing by, I decided to ask some of the other nurses sitting in the lounge about clothes. “Do you remember Carrie? The one who tied her scrubs with a gold lamé belt and always wore a string of pearls? What a fashionista she was!”

“I remember her,” someone recalled with a chuckle. “That girl really knew how to pimp her uniform. She wore those white shoes with the kitten heels that went clickety-clack down the hall. You could always hear her coming. And what about her nail art? She had those long, curved acrylic ones and when she was dating that sailor she decorated them with nautical symbols! I always meant to ask how she managed to insert a catheter. Ouch!”*

*I didn’t get a chance to tell them about Justine’s famous T-shirts, like the one that read “Nurses Call the Shots” imprinted over a scary looking needle and syringe. Then there was a night she wore one that said “Institute for the Sexually Gifted” and handed out fake “Virgin Restorer Pills” to the older nurses, who laughed about it until the morning.

“Why do we even have to wear uniforms?” someone else asked. “We’re individuals, aren’t we?”

“In the old days,” reminisced Phyllis, a senior nurse, still going strong in our physically taxing work, “we worked hard for our caps and white uniforms, and when you put them on, you felt like a real nurse. It was like you were preparing for your role in a play. It meant something.”

Monica kept quiet, but I felt certain she had a strong opinion on the matter. I knew her ambitions. Even with a young daughter whom she supported on her own and after going through a messy divorce, Monica had returned to school for her master’s degree in management and was a stellar student. Finally, she spoke up. “Appearance matters. How would you feel if the pilot of the plane you’re on showed up wearing track pants and a T-shirt? What kind of impression would that make? And what about all the bling nurses are wearing these days? It doesn’t look professional and surely they know jewellery harbours bacteria that we can bring in or take home with us.” A chorus of dissent flared up, but Monica continued above the din. “Besides, the hospital has a dress code and we’re supposed to adhere to it.”

“That’s just a way for management to control us. It takes away our individuality!”

“What’s a nurse supposed to look like?”

Someone sarcastically offered the suggestion, “Try the ‘Naughty Nurse’ website. You can get some wild ideas there!”

“My kids want to dress up as nurses for Halloween. What can they wear to look like a nurse?”

“Have you seen that nurse in Dialysis who still wears a cap? What a dinosaur!”

“Did you see that doctor who came to see my patient this morning? He looked like a geeky high school student, no lab coat, no name tag, nothing. He went into my patient’s chart. ‘Who are you?’ I asked him. He looked like he’d walked in off the street. He could have been a visitor or a patient from the Psych ward!”

Nurses’ uniforms seem to be yet another issue in the ongoing debate about what and who a nurse is. Uniforms did have a way of obliterating individuality. They could turn people into a service to such a degree that ease of recognition or the speed with which they responded to a call bell became the measure of their worth.

Even I, who always preferred the generic, unisex and equalizing qualities of my green or blue scrubs, recently purchased a pair of shiny, candy-apple red shoes for work, as much for the vibrant colour as for the comfort. Is individual expression really such a threat? Can’t beauty and function coexist? What if nurses could find ways to use Beauty and Art as capably as they use Science?

Excerpted from The Making of a Nurse. Copyright © 2007 Tilda Shalof. Published by McClelland & Stewart Ltd. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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Tilda Shalof

Tilda Shalof RN, BScN, CNCC (C) has been a staff nurse in the Medical-Surgical Intensive Care Unit at Toronto General Hospital of the University Health Network, for the past twenty-four years. She is also the author of the bestseller, A Nurse’s Story and an outspoken patient advocate, passionate nurse leader, public speaker, and media commentator. She lives in Toronto with her husband, Ivan Lewis and their two sons, Harry and Max. Learn more about Tilda and her books at

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11 Responses to The nurse who blings out her uniform

  1. Darcy Ali

    Our uniforms are comfortable and I like getting up in the morning knowing somewhat what I’m going to wear. But, I think the hospitals are taking it too far when they mandate a specific color for our uniforms. This I feel is trying to make us all cookie cutter! Next we’ll be like the flight attendents that were fired for being over a certain weight!

  2. Sue

    U talk about individuality but isn’t that obscured by EVERYONE wearing print scrubs? I worked very very hard for my license and continue to work hard to keep it. I actually have had CNA’s say “I have to renew my license” in front of a patient!! The patient thought she was a nurse because of no difference in uniform style! I’m sorry but you are certified!! Not licensed!! How are we to be professionals that are proud yet individuals when everyone looks the same? I for one am all for having specific uniforms for nurses!!

  3. Wendy

    If I still had my cap, I would proudly wear it … I think nurses have lost a lot of respectability with the exit of uniforms …

  4. Jenn

    I dont mind them telling me to wear a certain color, but when they make it so you can only buy one brand, and only from one store, and only embroidered by said store. I have a brand I like, fits well, stretches in the right places and doesn’t wrinkle.

    • Springkeeper RN

      Where I work the colors are green and/or white. They are blue/white at another hospital and purple/white at a third and none of them require a certain brand and I am very thankful for that. I think you have a legitimate complaint.

  5. Becky

    I believe its illegal for them to demand a particular store or brand.. isnt that interfering with other stores right to compete? etc… any feedback on this would be appreciated..

  6. Gecko

    We should be able to express indiviuality as long as still professional.Many of my patients welcome and positivly compliment the nurses do because it makes their stay much better.Our hospital talked about same uniformes based on title,stated “patients did not know who was who.” But many patients I met have been apposed to that by saying “I am glad you guys dress differenty here. At XYZ they dressed alike or different colors and were very unimpersonalble.” So, there you have it.They have yet to force the issue.When they do, I may be looking for work elsewhere.Just saying. :)

  7. Lili

    As a Nurse of 20yrs now, I have seen many fashions come & go. As a night nurse, I wld like something that wld help my patients remembr who I am;since they’r often woken out of a dead sleep & blurry eyed. Granted, I don’t see myself adding pulsating, lighted clips & barrettes to my hair. But I’d love to find a glow-in-the-dark Nursing pin or ponytail holder or even a hairclip that’ll glow-that isn’t from Claire’s boutique or the Disney store…

  8. Ranay

    I think it boils down to what you want to project.
    I have worked at different places where I was required to wear “Whites” and a place that required “Dress Whites”…
    The job I am at now, I can be be a bit more creative with scrub choices.. Freedom! :)
    The patients respond in kind, they like to see colors it brightens their day. It also keeps them current and alive/here in the now when I wear holiday themed scrubs. They can and do comment on the upcoming holiday, tell stories of their favorite holiday memories, starts many dialogs and gives me much information about the patient as well.
    Have to say tho, if I know I’ll be in a situation that requires me to look professional, I go to my whites or dress whites :)
    There is a time and place for everything. I like being able to make my own choices & I think the greater majority are able to do this as well.

  9. Your name

    I have worked in many settings, when I was required to wear white scrub tops, it was expensive (had to buy about one new top per week, if the tops are not perfect they look horrid) but it DID look really good. I like freedom to wear what ever scrubs I want to but honestly, having designated color does look good.

  10. Springkeeper RN

    I like that our hospital has green and white color options. I wear a white dress all the time at work but I am glad my co-workers get color options since they prefer to wear scrubs.