The White Dress

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.

(Original article dated 13/3/2002 - thanks to Graeme for finding it)

In this week's New Yorker in the department called Annals of Style, the question of "What should nurses wear?" is addressed.

"As anyone who has been in a hospital in recent years knows, the white dress, which was for decades the emblem of a registered nurse, has all but disappeared. These days, R.N.'s wear "scrubs" (which have) become the standard hospital attire for nurses, orderlies, technicians, and maintenance personnel alike, patients have no easy way of knowing when the person putting in the I.V. is a nurse, a nurse's assistant, or a groundskeeper."

You would be shocked to find out how few nurses are available in hospitals today. It is a calculated move on behalf of the powers that be to dress every category of employee in similar attire so that it is not obvious to the casual observer that most of the "caregivers" are unlicensed, unskilled, and uneducated.

"Putting everyone in scrubs makes it possible for hospitals to hide the fact that there aren't many nurses on the floor. People who wear uniforms work for people who don't."

"Why did nurses stop wearing the white dress? During the nineteen sixties, an era that was hard on uniforms in general, feminists began to read its whiteness as a sign not of power but of diminishment ... some nurses started to see the white uniform as a symbol of the angelic, demure, dependent woman - not the tough, resourceful professional."

Why indeed did we stop? The uniform was the visible symbol of our office. The uniform alone commanded respect and gave authority to what we said and did. It lent weight and importance to the instructions we gave and the tasks we performed. There were times when your entrance into the room could stop all conversation. Everything could wait to be said until the nurse was finished with her important work.

The act of preparing to go to work - putting on the uniform, complete with white support hose and flat, sturdy shoes, was like preparing for a role. There were standards of conduct and it was understood that you were now not just a person doing a job - you were an icon. A professional nurse. The nurse's cap was a unique design that indicated which nursing school you attended. The black stripe was a symbol of mourning for Florence Nightingale. The cap is now an artifact. It no longer exists.

"Around the same time as hemlines went above the knees and nurses' dresses got sexier, the naughty nurse - that authoritative yet submissive female - began to appear in Playboy cartoons, among other places. As the actual uniform has vanished from hospitals, this fantasy nurse seems to have grown in the collective id; she is a fixture of countless randy postcard displays in magazine stores everywhere."

It's true - I have to admit that the only place the uniform exists today is Halloween costumes, porno flicks and 'Hee Haw' reruns.

Reaction on 4/1/2002

Within hours of this page appearing online, I recieved this mail from Bob the Corgi herself.


Your site must be popular- I got about 7 hits from the link just this morning.

The article I quoted was not posted in the on-line version of the New Yorker; that 's why I quoted it so extensively. It was published the week of 3/13/02 and the gist of the article was an effort by an urban American hospital to distinguish themselves and their nurses by creating and distributing a uniform - a white dress that would hark back to the glory days when you could easily distinguish who was a nurse and who wasn't. It was part of their marketing strategy - inspired, I would guess, by the cachet that was gained when Pierre Cardin designed stewardess uniforms in the 70s. To that end, they hired a famous designer to spend time with the staff, to collect information about what the ideal uniform would be, and then to make those ideas a reality.

There was accurate and interesting content about the cultural relevance of the traditional nurse's uniform and the present scrub situation. The surprising conclusion of the piece was, after listing the elements that would go into the ideal uniform (care-free maintenance, freedom of movement, stain appearance minimized, etc), what they were describing was a set of scrubs.

The hospital-wide movement to create a white uniform was abandoned. Sad but true.


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