Timeline Of Nurse Uniforms

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

Tippets to Scrubs - A brief history of UK Nursing Uniforms by Phil Harwood

I, too, share a love of our rich UK Nurses Uniform Heritage. It is a heritage that is fast disappearing and I feel this site is helping to preserve a visualĀ  record of our uniforms.The use of film clips is, I believe, valid, as it often the only easily-accessible record of a particular uniform style at a particular time

Middle Ages

Nursing is done in 'Hospitals' setup by Monks and Nuns.


Nurses are not regarded as 'professionals' and Nursing is looked at as being for women of 'Low Morals'.


Florence Nightingale at work in the Crimea, the beginning of professional Nursing and the recognition of the importance of Military Nursing. A Mrs Mackenzie takes 6 Naval Nursing Sisters to the Crimea and the QARNNS (Queen Alexandra's Royal Naval Nursing Service) is born.


The Nightingale Training School for Nurses opens at St. Thomas's Hospital, London. Nursing is recognised as an honorable profession. Uniforms tended to be nearly floor-length dresses with very long pinafore-type white aprons (they weren't like the bib-front aprons of the 1950s, but had side straps that went over the shoulders), the dresses had long sleeves with starched white collars and cuffs (see TV37 which is similar). Some had starched bows around the neck instead. Caps were frilly and were often kept in place by ties under the chin.


The Queen Alexandra's Imperial Nursing Service (QAINS) is formed.


The Queen Victoria Jubilee Institute is founded and sets up the Queen's Nurses, which becomes the District (Community) Nursing Service of today. Queen's Nurses wore the same uniform as Hospital Nurses.


Following on from the above, County Nursing Associations are setup, to provide 'Village Nurses', these will eventually become the Community Midwives of today.


World War brings home the importance of Florence Nightingale's work and reinforces the importance of Military Nurses such as the QAINS and QARNNS. Nurses are wearing Tippetts, short, shoulder-covering cloaks which bear badges or stripes denoting their ranks. Later, these find their way into Civilian Nursing and are still seen today (see CAT26). Sisters wear elaborate headdresses.


The College of Nursing is founded. This will later become the Royal College of Nursing.


There is now a new branch of Military Nursing, PMRAFNS (Princess Mary's Royal Air Force Nursing Service).


State Registration of Nurses begins. The title SRN stands for State Registered Nurse. Nowadays it's RGN (Registered General Nurse).


Dresses become more practical, and start to become mid-calf length. Caps become less elaborate with the ties disappearing. Cap styles and buckle types begin to differentiate positions within the Nursing hierarchy.


Again, Military Nurses play their part. By now, QAINS has become QARANC (Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps).


The National Health Service (NHS) is founded.


Nursing explodes into life as the Health Service gets up and running. A 'Golden Age of Uniforms' begins (see AD19). As hospitals became warmer, short sleeves appear and Nurses who roll their long sleeves up start wearing arm cuffs or frills to cover up their rolled-up sleeves (see TV27 for a fine example. This also shows how, by the late 1950s, caps had developed into elaborate styles).

Bib-front aprons also replaced the older aprons (see REAL59). In District Nursing, the same changes had applied, but due to being out in the Community, there had been other adaptations (see TV21 and TV25 and note how the characteristic District Nurse pillbox hat has replaced the ward cap). Cloaks and capes are worn by nearly all nurses (see ANG9).

Emergency Ward 10 starts in 1957 (see TV3).


Open neck styles begin to appear (see REAL33). Scrub vests and pants begin to arrive from the USA, but are confined to the Operating Theatre. Tights begin to replace stockings. Male Nurses begin to join the profession. UK District Nurses in Scotland and the Borders begin to wear Trews (trousers) due to the colder winters. However, the bulk of Nurses still wear traditional styles. See the Shirley Eaton (late 50s/early 60s), Anita Harris (mid-60s) and the Jaquie Piper/Shirley Anne Field (late 60s) galleries for typical examples.


Disposable paper caps replace cotton ones (see ANG7. The stripes denote the number of years student training undertaken). 'National' uniform (see REAL16) of blue and white check dresses begins to replace the variety of the 60s styles. More Auxiliaries in stone check uniforms are employed.

More male nurses join the profession. Tights have won. Private Healthcare begins to take off, though politically distasteful to some, it does spawn some marvellous uniforms (see AD1). In 1976, Angels starts on the BBC (see ANG10. She is a 2nd year Student, i.e., she has 2 stripes on her cap.


The Golden Age is nearly over. By 1989, plastic disposable aprons have replaced the traditional ones. Outer wear begins to be replaced, caps are discarded (see REAL57) and fashion handbags replace proper Nurses shoulder bags when on duty. Standards generally begin to decline with personal jewellry being worn and makeup now acceptable. Dresses become more practical and comfortable to wear, with Action Pleats (see CAT5 & AD18) and Kimono Sleeves (see REAL54 & REAL56) becoming the norm.

In 1986, Casualty starts on the BBC.

As Doctors become more overstretched, Practice Nurses are taken on to deal with minor procedures such as ear syringing. Care in the Community takes off, and many Mental Hospitals are closed. Registered Mental Health Nurses (RMHNs) discard uniforms for work as Community Mental Health Nurses in ordinary clothes.


It starts to become popular to wear tunic and trouser sets. The current BBC drama Holby City represents this trend very well. Scrub vests and pants escape from Theatre onto the wards. The BBC's Casualty reflects this trend. Trainers replace 'Duty Shoes'. The wearing of belts when lifting patients is banned by the EEC, so many Nurses discard them altogether. Uniform becomes unpopular, with polo shirts and trousers replacing many of them. PEPs (Personal Eye Protectors) become popular due to the AIDS risk. For the same reason, the constant wearing of Surgical Gloves becomes widespread in some areas, eg., Dental Nursing.

There is a further growth in 'speciality' nursing (see AD16) and Nurse Practitioners appear (these are Nurses who can prescribe drugs and carry out procedures which were previously only done by Doctors. Private healthcare continues to grow and remains a bastion of stylish uniform (see real5133). Many more foreign Nurses are employed, as our Nurses leave the profession because of poor pay.

1994 sees Cardiac Arrest appear on our TV screens, portyaying the true state of the Nation's hospitals.


This website is born.


We will see more scrubs, I suspect we'll start getting the hideous patterns currently popular in the States over here. Once the latest denim scrub reaches these shores, all will be lost!!!! Uniform will further decline, but at least we'll still have those old films (although they'll probably all be on DVD by then).

The opinions/comments expressed in this piece are not necessarily those of the author of these Web Pages. Dating styles is also difficult as films tended not to have totally up-to-date uniforms. Also styles differed widely across the UK. If I have made any mistakes, please let me know! I would be pleased to have any further info on Nursing History and Uniform Styles, or to even hear from any female Nurses who might wish to share opinions on uniforms.

December 1999.

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