The National Uniform

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.

A Brief History of the 'National' Uniform

Text and pictures by Sarah

Until about 1972 all hospitals had their own style of uniform, mostly the traditional dress and starched apron. In the early 70s, the Dept of Health decided to go for a corporate look for all NHS nurses. Of course that meant it had to be poorly designed, characterless and above all cheap! The national uniform was originally intended to be worn as just the dress with no hat or belt, but this looked awful, more like a cleaner than a nurse. As a result of protests by nurses, most hospitals which adopted the national uniform also continued with hats and belts. It was widely adopted, but not everywhere. Some regions did not issue it at all and in general the London Teaching Hospitals kept to their traditional uniforms until about 1990.

The dress came in 4 colours. The original intention was to be dark blue for Sisters, white for Staff Nurses, light blue for Student Nurses and stone for auxiliaries. It turned out that the dark blue was never used because Sisters insisted on wearing a proper uniform! The light blue was found everywhere worn by both students and qualified staff, white was only ever found in a very few hospitals and the stone colour was issued to just about all auxiliaries.

It turns out that the national uniform was worn here at Addenbrookes until about 1990, before I moved here. I asked some of the nurses who were here then what they thought about it, and it turned out that they really did not like it! I have never had to wear it, the closest I came was as a Staff Nurse at St George's where the students wore it. So I thought I'd try a little experiment. I arranged to borrow an old national uniform from one of the girls at work who still has hers at home. I didn't feel brave enough to wear it to work; but I gave it a tryout at home (alone!) when making the beds.

I decided to get dressed just as if I was going to work, only put on the national dress instead of my normal uniform. So, as usual, black shoes and stockings, uniform dress, belt and silver buckle. To complete the picture I even put my hair up and pinned on my name badge and fob watch. I then did some house work, making beds and rushing around as if I was at work for an hour or so. I'm glad nobody was home to watch, they may have questioned my sanity!

Well I can confirm the national dress is horrible to wear and work in. The main problems are the material and the design. The material is an awful polyester/viscose mix which means it feels horrible and scratchy, particularly round the collar, and doesn't "breath" so it is hot and sweaty, a bit like wearing a plastic bag. The design is too restricting to allow free movement so that it feels tight under the arms when lifting and restrictive across the shoulders when bending. Also the skirt is too tight and restrictive, preventing free movement when rushing about or climbing the stairs. Finally, there are no breast pockets for pens etc so they all have to go in the patch pockets at waist height.

Modern uniform dresses are much easier to wear. For example my current uniform is made from a cotton blend so it is cool and comfortable and looks smart. It has pleats across the shoulders and in the skirt at front and back to allow ease of movement and is generously cut. It also has plenty of pockets. Personally, the best uniform I ever wore was when I was a Student Nurse and we had the traditional starched white aprons. When we had fresh aprons on, you could hear us crackling as we walked down the corridors.

The 'National' at Charing Cross

It seems that very few hospitals adopted the white version. As far as I can make out, the only major hospital to use it was Charing Cross in London. I have yet another friend who trained there, who has supplied the following details. From the early 70s to the mid 80s staff nurses wore the white national uniform, no belt and a cardboard hat. Student Nurses wore the blue version, no belt and a card hat. The pictures, all from the late '70s, also show a ward Sister wearing a blue tippet.

Unusually, the students had to wear the dress fully buttoned up to the neck at all times, very strange rule, must have been awful. The nurse wearing a cape is definitely outside Charing Cross Hospital because I recognise the building.To complete the story, in about 1987 Charing Cross adopted a new uniform for Staff Nurses, complete with traditional hats. The poor old student nurses had to keep their nationals, though, and hats were abandoned about 1990.

When seen in a photo or from a distance the national uniform can look perfectly smart, but in reality in close up it looks cheap and shoddy and rather crumpled. I fear its poor reputation is the reason some nurses have moved over to the awful tunics and trouser suits in recent years so it has a lot to answer for!

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