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Beyond Nightingale

Changing Fashions in Nursing Garb

Nurses' uniforms emerged from nuns' habits," explains nursing researcher Suzanne Beyea, Ph.D., R.N. "Florence Nightingale was always in competition with the nuns."

Through much of the 20th century, nurses wore starched white dresses and white caps. But by the 1970s, the white dresses were being replaced by white polyester pantsuits. Nurses found pants were more practical and easier to move in. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, nurses in pediatrics began to wear colorful tops patterned with cartoon characters, teddy bears, flowers, or other designs. It wasn't long before colored pants were available, too.

Staff nurse, circa 1950

By the 1980s, nurses were wearing scrubs, first in the operating room and later in intensivecare units. Today, most nurses wear patterned or solid-colored scrubs, although some do wear whites occasionally. Other hospital staff—aides, dietary workers, and housekeeping staff—also wear colorful tops and pants, so patients can sometimes have a hard time figuring out who the nurses are. Now, "in some facilities, there is a push for white uniforms to distinguish who is the nurse," says Beyea.

Nursing caps began going out of style in

Student, circa 1900

the 1970s, and by the 1980s hardly anyone wore them. "It was always difficult to keep it on your head," says Beyea. "As medicine became more complex, caps got more in the way." Rosemary Swain, R.N., MHMH '66, agrees. She was one of the few Hitchcock nurses who still wore a cap and white uniform in the 1980s. "I was one of the last to take [the cap] off," she says. It "wasn't practical and would catch on curtains and such." She soon gave up the dress, too, in favor of scrubs.

Nursing students had their own uniforms to differentiate them from staff nurses. At MHMH, the student uniform changed little until the 1960s, except for the hemline rising and falling depending on the times. It was made up of separate pieces that all had to be starched: gray dress, apron, kerchief, collar, cuffs, and bib. A black wool cape could be worn outside or in the wards at night when it was chilly.

The "probie" uniform consisted of a blue-andwhite- striped or -checked dress with a white apron and detachable white collar and cuffs. Students wore black stockings and shoes until the late 1940s, when they were allowed to wear white ones like staff nurses. By the 1960s, the uniform was more practical, without as many separate pieces, and finally it was short-sleeved and made of a permanent-press cotton blend. Male students wore white pants,

gray shortsleeved tops with white cuffs and collars, and white shoes. The graduate uniforms for both men and women were white.

Diploma schools, like MHMH's, each had unique caps and pins to set their graduates apart from those of other schools. Nursing students were not allowed to wear their caps until they had completed the probationary period, and they received a gold cross pin upon graduation. So the capping ceremony was a special occasion, much like the white coat ceremonies at medical schools today.

Staff nurse, circa 2005

Students in different classes were distinguished from each other by the stripes on their caps. At MHMH, freshman caps had no stripes, second-year caps had a thin gray stripe, and third-year caps had a thin black stripe, while the caps of graduates had a thick black stripe.

"It was probably like stripes in the military," says 1980 MHMH graduate Susan Reeves, M.S, R.N., who is today a vice president of DHMC. "Your stripes changed as your rank changed. And the symbol of going to a thick black stripe was that you were now a graduate nurse." But, she adds, "you didn't become an R.N. until you successfully completed your board exam."

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