Book Explores Symbolism of Nurse’s Uniform

May 1, 2013

The little white nursing cap seems to defy gravity, clinging to the tip of a massive beehive hairdo. An impractical accessory? Perhaps. But for a century, the cap served as a nurse’s badge of professional honour, part of a uniform whose metaphorical and material aspects are explored by historian Christina Bates in her new book, A Cultural History of the Nurse’s Uniform.

A research associate at the Canadian Museum of Civilization and curator of the 2005 exhibition A Caring Profession: Centuries of Nursing in Canada, Bates studied thousands of photos and hundreds of artifacts to trace the evolution of nurses’ uniforms from a sign of educated middle-class respectability, to a mark of scientific professionalism, and finally to an outdated symbol of hierarchical discipline.

“While I was doubtful that the uniform really served the young women that well in terms of their professionalism, at the same time I have to say that overwhelmingly the women who wore that uniform were so proud to wear it,” Bates said.

Seeking to improve standards and shed their reputation as sick-houses for the poor, hospitals instituted nurse-training programs in the late 19th century. They mandated respectable uniforms for their young, middle-class nursing recruits, setting them apart from the older, untrained, working-class nurses, often caricatured as drunken slovens.

By the early twentieth century a standard nursing uniform had evolved: conservative dress, starched white apron and bib, removable cuffs and collar, and starched white cap. The cap was a special mark of honour, awarded only to student nurses who passed a gruelling probation period.

The white overgarments symbolized hygiene and scientific professionalism, while also serving to de-sexualise the intimate bodily contact between female nurses and male patients, Bates said. “The bib was so heavily starched that it stood out from your body and completely covered the breasts.”

But as nursing education moved from hospitals to universities in the 1970s and independent thinking took precedence over rigid hierarchical discipline, nurses rebelled against uniforms as symbols of subservience.

Now, the only vestige of the traditional uniform remains in the starched white cap that some student nurses still don with pride for their graduation photo.

A Cultural History of the Nurse’s Uniform is published by the Canadian Museum of Civilization and may be ordered online.

Courtesy of the Kingston General Hospital Archive

Courtesy of the Kingston General Hospital Archive