Scrubs style history: When dresses were the dress code

What if American nurses had to wear a national uniform? It wasn’t too long ago that nurses in the United Kingdom had to do just that.

Take a trip down memory lane with UK nurse Penny Hammond as she remembers the look, and the life, of getting “dressed” for work.



In Britain, the national uniform (or simply “national”) was designed with the advent of national health care in 1948, and the Newcastle dress.

It would appear that the Newcastle dress, worn by nurses at Freeman Hospital, Newcastle, UK, was chosen for its style over its function. It was certainly awkward to get into and sometimes uncomfortable to move around in. However, seeing photos of girls in this dress does give me a certain sense of nostalgia for my time as a student and registered nurse.



Evolution of the nursing dress

It’s clear that during the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, the evolution of the design of the American nursing dress took a somewhat different direction from that in the UK. The Newcastle dress was my husband’s favourite of my uniforms, and it was worn at one time by a large number of women.


The look

The Newcastle dress was short-sleeved and had a rear zip. This added a rather clean line to the front of the dress, which was made from a single yoke across the front above the bust, and three front panels made up the rest of the bodice and “skirt” of the dress. The “Peter Pan” collar was split in the front to give a small round section at the neck (as the Newcastle qualification badge at that time was a medal on a ribbon, this was often worn from this area) and also split at the back (to allow for the zip), but this often had an annoying habit of standing away from the dress.

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Penny Hammond

Penny Hammond is a nurse in the UK who first shared her story about the Newcastle dress in Nurses’ Uniforms - Past & Present.

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16 Responses to Scrubs style history: When dresses were the dress code

  1. Comancheshadow

    We do wear a national outfit….its called “Scrubs”…. no cap…(thank God) and generally, either clogs or tennis shoes….. comfort is supreme!…. what we wear has nothing to do with our nursing abilities!!!…. I used to hate those “official” sort of nursing uniforms…very stiff and hard to move around in. Scrubs are much better…although, I do move so quick, speed walking down the hallways, that my pants try to fall off me!…. Those drawstrings slip, you know….LOL…..

  2. Helen Marshall

    When I graduated from Nursing school in 1979, pastel uniform tops were just coming out but many of us still wore white dresses. I was very proud of my 10 white dresses (of various styles and fabrics) and had favorite stores and brands. When I had my daughter in 1994, there were still some dresses available and I had a maternity uniform that I’m sure could have been used as a sail for some kind of boat. In a way I miss the dresses because they ment so much to me but I do not miss the tightness that some of them shrunk to, the way some dresses soaked up stains and never released them and the difficulty of doing some activities in a dress. (Ever do CPR in a straight dress? Pretty soon the skirt creaps up your behind and “unladylike” doesn’t even come close to describing what you look like). Scrubs are infinitely more practical, easier to clean and cheaper. Sometimes I wish though that there was some way to convey your status without the nametag. Some hospitals have all of the RN’s wear a certain color of scrubs but it doesn’t quite convey the knowledge and professional standing that some of the crisp dresses used to. I’ve heard all of the arguements about how the white dresses convey servitude and old school practices and I agree with them, I just wish there was some universal something to wear (besides your nametag or something attached to it) that could be recognized from across a room that says “I’ve been through lots of school, I’m aware, I’m knowledgeable and I can help you” like the white uniform used to do.

  3. Carolyn

    I graduated from nursing school in 1972. While students, we wore a culotte with overskirt for modesty, a matching blouse that fit over the hips, AND a white apron on top of that. Of course we had white hose – thank goodness they began making white pantyhose, so no more garter belt – white leather nursing shoes, and our white cap.
    After graduation, I really didn’t mind wearing the white dress uniforms there was a certain amount of professional pride. Eventually we were allowed to wear “tasteful” pant suits. The thing I really disliked was the pantyhose! What a pain and expensive!
    ICU & ER nurses were allowed to go w/o caps by the 80’s & scrubs eventually took the place of the whites.
    I enjoy the convenience & comfort of my scrubs & sneakers now, but still occasionally miss the feeling of professional respect I felt wearing the white uniform that identified me as a Registered Nurse.

  4. Sharon

    When I graduated in 1994 we still wore dresses in clinical training and caps! That wasn’t that long ago!

  5. Jean Malizia

    I graduated in 1998 and that was the very last time I wore a dress. Egad. The way we have to dip and bend is hard enough without worrying someone is looking where they shouldn’t!

  6. Eileen Bianchi

    When I went to nursing school we had a uniform that we had to put the pieces together. We had to attach the collar, arm bands and it had an apron that was 2 pieces. We wore dresses when I graduated in 1975. It was nice when scrubs came along in the 70’s but still miss wearing a cap. I think it just adds to the nurses look.

  7. Kay Stewart R.N.

    I graduated in 1980 and our school uniform was a blue strai ght dress with a white pinafore white hose and leather white “nurses” shoes and of course a cap. I still prefer to where white as it is a universal sign of the nurse. Only diff. is its a wite scrub and no cap. Many of my patients are elderly with poor sight and they instantly know I am the nurse when they see the white of my uniform.

  8. Tammy Magrisso RN

    Hello Kay I wore the same uniform you did by chance did you graduate OCCC? I graduated in 1979 today I wear colored scrubs but my first hospital job I wore both white pantsuits and white dresses, white panty hose and leather nursemates.

  9. I graduated in 1996. We were required to wear a white dress and our caps with the “double” black stripe. I was so proud of earning my stripes, one at a time. The “double” black stripe meant you were an RN. My capping ceremonies brought tears of joy to everyone involved. My mother still has my cap to this day and my 4 children often ask to see it and even try it on!

  10. Nicole

    When I was in nursing school we had to wear green scrubs for clinicals. For graduation we wore white scrubs … no hat. I must admit that I haven’t wore the white scrubs since. I graduated in 2005.

  11. Daniel Mickschl LPN

    I personally feel scrubs, and clogs on men nurses, is redonqulous. If 1 of my male nurses showed up like that, they would get spun around and sent to dress like a professional nurse. I dress to the 9s and dont care if it gets a little uncomfortable. When u are sick and in bed, the last thing u want to wonder is: if the person takin care of you studied their craft w/the same pride that they dressed 4/wrk.

  12. Tiffany

    I graduated from Nursing School in 2005 and was actually a little sad that I never had a chance to wear a cap, even if just for a picture.

  13. Kelley

    I miss my ” whites”. changing to the cutie cutsie scrubs, it caused a lack of respect for our profession.

  14. Springkeeper

    While I am thankful that dresses are no longer required, I always wear either a white dress or white skirt/scrub top to work. I receive lots of compliments from patients and family members and many have assumed I am far more senior on the floor than I actually am (which I quickly correct, of course). I work on a med-surg floor and I have done everything required of me and then some and all in a dress. I really don’t care that most other RN’s wear scrubs and if that’s what they feel comfortable/work best in, so be it.

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