Rebecca's Letter

This article was first published on the old Nurse Uniforms - Past & Present website ( around 1999-July 2018, created by Kevin Dycken. It is now offline, this is a remake in a modern look.

Dear Dr Dycken,

Last night after looking at your site I wrote this letter to you on why I think nurses uniforms are so special. I'm happy for you to publish it if you think it is appropriate, otherwise just read and enjoy.

I am writing to express my appreciation of your wonderful site and to throw my own thoughts on why traditional nurses' uniforms have a special place in so many people's hearts, both male and female. I hope you find my observations interesting and would welcome your own thoughts on the topic.

The truth lies mainly in the history of the profession and what its uniforms have come to represent and be associated with, and before I go on we should be careful not to disrespect the skilled, hardworking nurses (of both sexes) of today. I am not a nurse partly because I have neither the stamina or the patience for the job, and we should admire what they do. Being a real nurse is about being a healthcare professional, not looking smart in uniform, and, much as I mourn their passing, those starched Victorian dresses inevitably give way to the comfortable, practical clothing these people deserve and need to do their jobs well.

That said, I would hope they are also proud of the distinctive history of their profession, not least because of its early role in advancing the cause of educated women in the workplace, proving them capable of demanding work in difficult, often dangerous circumstances.

As everybody knows, the story of modern nursing begins in the Crimean War with the discovery, largely attributed to Florence Nightingale, that a disciplined, professional approach was as vital to nursing as to the work of doctors or even to the grisly business of fighting the war itself. It is easy to see why maintaining an organised environment would have helped prevent disease, and various vices, spreading amongst injured men, dramatically reducing death rates in military hospitals. Of course, history recalls this was a great success and a new vocation was born.

Now Florence and her contemporaries had many sources of strength to draw from in developing this vision. The first of these was undoubtedly the increasing numbers of educated young women, like Florence herself, determined to achieve something with their lives rather than remaining under the wing of their families and then a husband. Still barred by the traditional 'male' professions, it is natural that they would gravitate towards something new and challenging overlooked my men as a caring role and hence 'women's work'. Despite its new found structure and codification, nursing would remain quite assertively a female profession.

The second factor was that the Nightingale nurses were largely recruited from religious orders with their long history of discipline and organisation, while of course being charitable and caring towards the weak. Much of the ethos of these groups found its way into the profession, giving it a backbone of Puritan asceticism and moral integrity. No doubt this helps explain the virginal, angelic aura associated with nurses in uniform.

The third factor, of course, was that the entire project initially took place under the auspices of the military with its natural love of order, hierarchy and, of course, uniformity. Little wonder then, that this combination of factors produced a vocation with its own unique style and philosophy, uniformed and disciplined, yet caring and distinctly feminine, which filled its niche in the increasingly structured world of medical care extraordinarily well.

It is a well known phenomenon that uniforms are often based on smart civilian clothes commonly worn at the time they were invented. Judicial robes and wigs, for example resemble the height of fashion in the eighteenth century when the rules for clothing in court were codified. Likewise the tunics worn by Army officers on formal occasions (of course uniforms in the Navy were not codified until much later, hence the more modern style). Academic robes go back even further.

Now consider uniforms worn by women. Most of them, such as those worn by policewomen, female members of the Armed Forces, and the like are slightly feminised versions of the male equivalent. This is no surprise as these roles were only opened to women relatively recently, when the uniform to be worn was well established and, in any case, women could now wear traditionally male clothing.

Not so of course for nurses uniforms. Even relatively recent designs are distinctively feminine, developing from what would have been considered appropriate, smart and practical garb for working women in the nineteenth century when the nursing profession was established. Thus the distinctive costume worn by nurses evolved and, as uniforms tend to, remained static while women's fashions changed during the early twentieth century. Although there are a few other costumes which fall into this category, like some uniforms worn by maids, none of these create quite the same air of comforting maternal authority associated with nurses. It is, however, the special associations the profession has acquired that gives nurses uniforms their particular appeal.

Finally, I cannot complete this letter without singing the praises of the wonderful 'National' uniform of the early 1980s which, while being modern, captures so much of the essence of the traditional uniform. I remember well its slightly militaristic cut and simple austerity along with the reassuring, hygienic smell of hospitals from my early childhood. It is a shame they abolished it, no doubt to modernise the image of nurses, though perhaps it is time our perception caught up with the highly skilled, high tech reality, leaving the traditional, uniformed nurse where she belongs; with a proud place in the history of medicine and, of course the emancipation of women.

Yours sincerely,


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