Before the recognition of nursing as an official organized profession, there existed no accompanying uniform. During her time working in the 1851 British Crimean war Florence Nightingale and her nurses wore the first known version of a nursing uniform which consisted of a long sleeved grey tweed dress, woolen jacket and cape, topped with a brown scarf. Ten years later, during the American Civil War, Dorothea Dix encouraged her field nurses to do the same, although suggesting instead dark, plain colored dresses (browns, blacks, greys) complemented by white aprons.
In 1873 the Bellevue Hospital in New York became the first training program to institute a uniform requirement for its students, which consisted of a grey-blue striped dress, white apron, and white cap. This idea quickly spread to training schools across the country, the uniform becoming a social symbol of cleanliness. Uniforms additionally served as identifiers while students were out in society, demanding a certain level of respect and treatment. As time went on, schools began personalizing their uniforms in order to allow for their nurses to be distinguished from others. By 1900 desires for all white uniforms arose, and by 1940 most nursing institutions had adopted this new trend. Between the 1940s and the 1970s, the shift back against the all white uniform ensued, although the presence of the white cap and apron remained.
The next major shift in the nursing uniform came about in the 1970s when hospitals discontinued the practice of laundering nursing uniforms as had been tradition in years past. It was at this point that nurses began to advocate for right to wear pants/pantsuits for the first time in the hospital, leaving behind the traditional dress and apron, and even identifying hat. By the 1980s scrubs had made their appearance in the nursing world and remain to this day the prominent clothing item of choice for nurses all over the country.
Sources: Houweling, Lynn. “Image, Function, and Style.” The American Journal of Nursing 104 (April 2004): 40-48.
As might be expected, given the roots of the nursing profession, the history of the nursing cap began in Europe around the 1830s. Although no formal training programs existed for nurses at this point in time, nurses chose to don plainer versions of headwear contemporary with fashions of the time, primarily because caps were an expected part of a woman’s wardrobe. In 1840 the Sisters of Charity chose to be more specific with regard to this social norm, requiring their nurses wear tight caps with a short ruffle along the back that were tied below the chin. During the Crimean War, the evolution of the nursing cap took one step further when Florence Nightingale and her nurses wore simple white ruffle caps (similar to a mobcap) made of linen or muslin. The thought behind the institution of caps at this point in time had evolved into a regard similar to that of the nursing uniform: caps had come to represent a level of respect and dignity, to be demonstrated both by patients and the public alike.
The idea of the cap as an integral component of the nursing uniform reached the United States around the time of the founding of nursing as a profession. Training schools at this point in time adopted their own versions of the cap, and it wasn’t until the 1870s that the Bellevue Cap rose in popularity and became the closest thing to a standard design. First implemented at the Bellevue Hospital School for Nurses (one of the first nurse training schools in the United States) the cap was little more than a ruched mobcap. Later the tradition would arise to place a black velvet band around the rim of these caps in order to signify the level of a graduate nurse.
By 1900 the ruched cap had phased out of style and the Standard Cotton Folded Cap quickly gained its popularity. This style of cap would remain the primary cap style throughout most of the century, slight variations being made as time went on. By the 1940s the symbolism of the nursing cap had reached its peak, resulting in the institution of capping ceremonies. These ceremonies served as a rite of passage for nursing students as they passed their nursing examinations. This tradition remained popular well into the 1960s.
The 1970s and 1980s saw a major shift with regard to nursing attire, including the disappearance of the nursing cap altogether. By this point in time nursing caps had become an obsolete symbol of the past, representing.
Source: Bates, Christina. “The Nurse’s Cap and its Rituals.” Dress 36 (2010): 21-40.