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Nursing Uniforms: Degenerating?

Medical uniforms

The shift from the white dress to scrubs has traditionalists frowning

The traditional nursing uniform has taken a backseat recently, as more and more hospitals, retirement facilities, convalescent homes, and other healthcare institutions require their nurses to wear nursing scrubs. But this shift from the customary crispy, tailored-white outfit to the contemporary shirt-and-pajama ensemble is not without controversy. The new trend begets different reactions - modernists insist that the change is practical, but more traditional nurses are offended.

In the beginning

The nursing profession has a long and glorious uniform tradition that spans well over 150 years. The classic nursing uniform is the conventional pleated white dresses paired with white shoes. Some theories suggest that nursing uniforms evolved from habits worn by nuns, who were one of history's first nurses.

It wasn't until the 1960's when, during the beginning of the feminist movement, some nurses began seeing the starchy white blouse-and-skirt nursing uniform as an imposition of weakness. Feminist nurses started complaining that its color and stiff structure limits their movement and causes them respond slower to urgent situations.

Even the traditional nurses' cap - which, for a long, time, was considered the nursing uniform's crowning glory - slowly withered away from nurses' wardrobe. The nursing cap used to indicate what school a nurse went to, and also served the practical purpose of being an 'identification tag' so that both doctors and patients can easily distinguish nurses in a hospital setting. But these caps are mostly stashed behind the closet nowadays, and only very few nurses still wear them.

Status quo

With the modernization of healthcare facilities came drastic transformations in the work wear of health professionals. Scrubs have taken the place of the traditional nursing uniform, and because of their comfort and versatility, it's no surprise that many modern nurses prefer them.

A real nurse in traditional nursing uniform is now a rare (if not unlikely) sight. The adult entertainment media was quick to filch the idea, however, and trimmed the uniform's hemline. It shed its 'professional' image and was modified to be 'naughtier' for use in adult entertainment.

The debate

More 'traditional' nurses resist the growing popularity of scrubs, saying that putting nurses in such casual outfits oftentimes make them indistinguishable from non-professionals in the healthcare industry, such as cleaners and domestic staff. To them, the traditional nursing uniform should be preserved as an emblem of professionalism, and be given the respect it rightfully deserves.

To the more modern nurses, though, the switch to comfortable scrubs is a welcome change. Scrubs enable freedom of movement, are resistant to stains, and are generally easier to maintain. In fact, scrubs have so far outstripped traditional nursing uniforms that it now comes not just in plain 'hospital colors' of blue and green, but also in fun, sometimes 'funky' prints.


There have been efforts to bring the traditional nursing uniform back into healthcare fashion, but not surprisingly, the attempt is handed the roundabout. In 1992, The New Yorker published an article featuring an American hospital which tried to set itself apart by making their nurses wear a modern white dress, which it envisioned to be more functional but faithful to the traditional nursing uniform.

The hospital even hired a famous couturier to design the 'ideal' uniform based on what its nursing staff requires. The conclusion? All the features that nurses wanted in a uniform - functionality, low maintenance fabric, comfort and freedom of movement - will only be achieved by scrubs. The move to bring back the traditional nursing uniform was eventually thrown out.

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