Nurse Uniforms Through The Years

Feb 15, 2016

Just as medical practice itself has changed significantly in the past hundred years, so too has the clothing with which it’s associated. While there is still much debate in some circles regarding the advantages of one type of nurse’s uniform over another, there is no debate over the vital role nurses play in the medical field. It’s no accident that many changes to their uniforms over the years have been more a reflection of their increasing stature among their medical peers. In fact, one of the biggest complaints today is that it’s difficult to tell at a glance between a doctor or a nurse. If you think a doctor in the 1950s would be even remotely cool with being mistaken for a nurse or for a nurse to be mistaken for a doctor, well, you’re more optimistic than I am. In any event the ways nurse’s uniforms have evolved throughout their lifespan is fascinating for both fashion buffs and socially conscious types alike. The 1960s uniform is practically haute couture, for example. We also couldn’t imagine being a pre-WWI nurse and having to deal with not having any pockets. Wow.

In the 1800s, nurses weren’t considered to be particularly important and most wore “servant” uniforms in dark colors with aprons.

Library of Congress/ Detroit Publishing Company

It wasn’t until the 1900s that the light-colored uniforms and white caps that would define nursing’s look for the next century would begin to appear.

Library of Congress/ C.D. Williams & Co.

By 1910 nursing had begun to earn respect as a profession, and clean white uniforms with special insignias and markings to denote specialties and rank.
The onset of WWI brought many practical features that remained in use thereafter, like pockets, lighter materials and easy-to-roll sleeves.

Library of Congress/ Bain News Service

Returning from the war, nurses in the 1920s took those changes with them and the nurse’s uniform we all know and recognize began to take shape.

Library of Congress


The 1930s saw only minor updates, in keeping with the fashion of the time.

Library of Congress/ Harris & Ewing

A significant change in the 1940s was a shift from white coats to white aprons. These were much easier to change into and out of when they needed to be replaced and were easier to launder as well.

Library of Congress/ Fritz Henle

The biggest trends in the 1950s were shorter hems and shorter sleeves. The hems were a matter of fashion but also of mobility. Less billow uniforms meant fewer problems maneuvering through increasingly busy hospitals.

Western University

As with the rest of the fashions of the ‘60s, minimalism took hold with nurses as well. The modern era of automatic washing machines and dryers meant these easier-to-launder uniforms were a welcome change.

Pace University

Although the uniforms themselves only saw minor stylistic updates, less emphasis was placed on tradition through the 1970s. The nursing cap began to vanish and some nurses began to ditch the dress for clean, white pants.



The ‘80s threw out the proverbial rulebook as more and more men joined the profession and the rigid gender structure of the past turned into comfortable, casual, easy-to-clean attire, like linen shirts and pants.

Wikipedia Commons

As OR nurses began to adopt surgical scrubs in the 1990s, ER nurses and others soon began to covet the comfortable, easy-to-clean, and most of all, affordable hospital attire.

Library of Congress/ Martha Cooper

This non-fashion has had some serious staying power and almost all nurses do their rounds in these handy garments, often in fun colors, patterns or prints as rules allow.

Lower Columbia College

Via: Little Things

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