Diverse nursing uniforms modeled by not-particularly-diverse cast of nurses

These nursing uniforms come from the Philippines, Denmark, British Honduras; Hong Kong, Madeira, Kenya; Nepal, Dominican Republic, and Colombia. The nurses, one suspects, do not.

The photo, though, is really interesting. I'd love to know more about why nursing uniforms differed so dramatically. Some of it is surely cultural. But then you look at things like the sleeves on the Hong Kong nurse and you think there's got to be a practical reason behind some of this stuff.

This comes from Hidden Treasure—a book that catalogs amazing images from the archives at the National Library of Medicine. You can see a slideshow of images from the book—including Hitler's head x-ray!—at Wired.

Via David Dobbs


  1. I’d say the sleeves are for cleanliness. You get blood etc on them, they are easier to get clean with bleach and you could replace them mid-day.

    1.  Former nurse here.  Those odd sleeves would not have been nearly as practical as bare arms, in terms of keeping the uniform clean during the work day, or maintaining infection control.  Not knowing the story, I’d wager those had to do with standards of modesty.

      1.  Could it be both? Modesty requires full sleeves, but they are removable to replace or clean?

        1. Could be.  I’m just skeptical that practical considerations like the comfort of nurses or patients were a factor.  Nursing uniforms in the 1950s and well into the 1960s had a lot more to do with communicating your role in the organization, than with helping you get the work done.

          1. Exactly. The differing uniforms indicated rank. Really old school nurses had the hats that indicated which nursing school they went to and the stripes also could be used to indicate rank/type of nurse as well. 

        2. You are correct about it being both. In the 70’s when I was a kid, we moved next door to a colorful, crotchety old lady in her late 70’s. As I was the odd sort of child who was appreciative of colorful, crotchety old types*, we became fast friends. She had been a nurse back in the teens and gave me her full uniform which had those sleeves and an apron, both of which detached so they could be cleaned or replaced without having to do either to the entire uniform. The long sleeves were just the cultural norm at the time for all clothing. Interestingly, there were no buttons; both items had to be pinned on. (side note: the uniform is beyond tiny. I know zero adult women who would even come close to fitting into it. It’s about the size that might fit a skinny 11 year old these days).

          Elsie is long gone, but I still have the uniform.

          *possibly because I’m clearly on a trajectory to becomming one myself.

          1. Elsie lived in the house that her grandfather had built; the last update had been in the 20’s when they installed indoor bathrooms and many of the rooms still only had a single electric bulb hanging from the ceiling and no outlets.

            She also claimed that she had one of her kitchen taps modified to dispense not water, but gin.

            God I loved that woman.

      2. I think that the emphasis on white in part or all of the uniform has to do with the image of cleanliness, not necessarily the reality. The goal was to show that the uniform wasn’t stained by the bodily fluids of the last patient that the nurse had seen. 

  2. No no, I get it — the picture’s hidden — like, oh I don’t know — a treasure. See? Now it makes sense.

  3. They’re modeling the uniforms, not participating in some “we love diversity” photo ensemble. Do you complain that the mannequins in a department store aren’t diverse enough too?

      1. Really? 

        All I see these days a faceless gynoids, mostly of a beige or black colour not found on humans at all.

    1. Good lord.  Do you not understand that people of color were banned from most professional jobs until the last few decades?

      1.  A lot of these countries have a majority population of ”people of color”, so your counterpoint doesn’t really make sense.

          1. This is because they were über-correct and made sure to portray minorities (i.e. whites) for most countries. Just like almost every American ‘group of businessmen’ stock photo includes the token African American and Asian.

            This is getting tiring. They showed uniforms, not people; no pretense of being representative for anything. All photos seem to have been taken in one setting; what should they have done, fly in a nurse from each country so they can shoot accurate photos? Talk about overkill.

            You can argue about this till the cows come home but what exactly do you gain?

          2. This is getting tiring.

            Yes, racism is getting quite tiring. Particularly for its victims. In fact, it’s been tiring for some centuries now.

            They showed uniforms, not people; no pretense of being representative for anything. All photos seem to have been taken in one setting; what should they have done, fly in a nurse from each country so they can shoot accurate photos?

            There are nine different women in the picture. They’re all white. The fact that you suggest that they would have to fly women in from other countries to provide diversity pretty much sums up the problem. The photos were taken in the US, c. 1950, where I assure you, there were very many women of color who could have worn the uniforms. Either the women in the photos were nurses or they were models, but either way, women of color were clearly excluded from participating.

            You can argue about this till the cows come home but what exactly do you gain?

            Perspective. Some bit of knowledge that might make you understand a little more about race relations in the US today.

          3. Fail. Fake outrage is fake.

            This is not from today (yes, really, go grab a calendar), there are probably no ill intentions, they just grabbed a couple of nurses a long while back showing foreign uniforms in order to produce some cheap print publication. That’s all there is to it, seriously. The fact that they depict African and Asian uniforms is a major clue that they didn’t set out to marginalize them brown folks or their countries. If you wanna blow this out of proportion, go ahead, doesn’t further anyone’s cause though.

            “Clearly” my bunghole. You know fuck all about the precise circumstances of this particular photo shoot.

            The End.

          4. Not sure if you are explaining what I meant, blueelm, but yeah, that is what I meant…

            Why didn’t they take the photos in the lands where they got the uniforms? Obviously, they were in those counties to get the uniforms, so why not just take the photos of the nurses in their uniforms then?

            I get it. It’s another time peroid. People where racist back in the day, etc., but the point being made by other commenters was that it was horrible that there weren’t people of color in the photos.  Everyone understood it was another time peroid. Their commenting about it being racist was valid.

            Also, commenters should really be more polite and respectful. If you were to talk to someone face-to-face that way, you would be called an asshole. That whole tone of ”GOOD LORD”, and ”GET OVER IT”, shit is really not polite.

  4. I always thought that the hats differed depending on what school they had graduated from

    1.  I think that the style was dictated by the institution that they worked at, not their school. (Nursing schools have distinctive class pins that nurses are usually allowed to wear on their uniforms.)

  5. The hat, btw, is basically a cloth napkin.  You wash and starch it at night, throw it on a mirror to flatten it, then peel it off in the morning, fold and pin in place.

    Also, one of my best friends and long ago co-worker used to show up for work in a beige linen suit, cashmere sweater and pearls.  She just put on a gown if she had to do anything nasty. 

  6. The old nurse uniforms did not look practical by today’s standards, but at least the wearer looked like a competent professional in them. I recall nurses wearing them as late as 1988 or so. When did they start wearing those scrubs with those dreadful, garish graphics on them? Most of all, why? And then there are  Crocs, the official footwear of those who have given up all claim to dignity. Can’t they at least wear Danskos or Birkis?

    1. The official footwear of those whose dignity, importance and professionalism is unquestioned, removing the need for sartorial status symbols.

      Also, private (read: wealthy) doctors around here wear some of the shoddiest footwear. When you make six figures and have costumers who pay top dollar queuing up to get half an hour of your time you don’t have to impress them.

      1.  If they’re top dollar *costumers*, they’d probably have a fair bit to say about your outfit.

        1. I considered correcting that after I posted the comment but then I thought, hey, why not let somebody have fun with it. You’re welcome ;-)

    2. If you’re horrified by Crocs in health care, you must be too young to have lived through the era of Famolares.

      1. Oh damn! Those shoes just reminded me of Brian De Palmas ‘Dressed to Kill’ .. they play such a spooky creepy role at the end of that movie!

  7. And yes, this constant harping on “diversity” is pretty tiring. But until all receive proportional representation in retro nursing uniform spreads, none of us are free.

  8. The uniform from Nepal particularly fascinates me – somehow I get the feeling my afternoon is going to be spent trying to find out more info…so much for productivity!

  9. When the nursing uniform was first invented, it had removable white collars and cuffs.  Plus a white apron.  Dresses were much harder to launder and press than a collar and cuffs and apron.
    The nursing cap is still given to graduate nursing students and yes, they vary depending on the school, but is rarely worn today.  It is a vestige of the veil that early nurses used to cover their hair.  Hair was washed even less frequently than clothes.In the UK, belt color can designate rank between a nurse and a “sister.”  Not a nun but the highest ranking nurse on the ward.
    I understand why they wear those pajamas and crocs but I miss the crisp white uniforms, white hose, white hat, and squeaky white shoes.  I’m OLD.

    1. At least you could tell who did what in those days. Now you can’t tell a candy striper from a brain surgeon. 

      1. The doctors are fit. They are in shape and healthy. They do not sit down. The guy who could run a marathon, that is your doctor.

        It’s a combination of being devoted to health both in activity and in diet, having the material security not to have been eaten alive by stress hormones and somehow being able to clock out of their job.

        They do not limp around the hospital with a cane like House, they don’t worry about you when your not in the room – that’s TV.

        1. That’s bull and I’ll call you on it. Maybe in a private practice where you clock off at 5pm and occasionally get an emergency call for a false alarm or heart attack. Otherwise, you work in a public or city hospital with a ratio of ten thousand patients to one doctor and a casualty ward patient every minute. Government pays your wage, and your shifts routinely exceed 24 hours. Find time to exercise, eat well and get in your specialist exam study among all that and I will shake your hand Dv Rev. I will shake your hand vigorously. 

          1. I didn’t say when they clocked off, I said they have somehow learned to clock off.

            I know about the years of hazing, instruction, exams and service and that has given them a different time management. Private hospital, city hospital, teaching hospital, the doctor is fit.

            More fit than the nursing staff, far more fit than the patients. It is a visible differentiator. 

            Show me a fat slob doctor, beer drinking cheetos eating non-jogging doctor. Show me a doctor just 10lbs heavier than the same gender same height nurse. Show me a doctor who’s clothes can’t fit him or her and I’ll shake your hand.

          2. Hmm. I tried googling all the fat residents that I used to know and they’re all skinny now.

  10. So if a white person lives in Kenya, they can’t be a “real” Kenyan? Interesting.

    (I’m being facetious, but that is a pretty silly complaint.)

    1. Not really all that silly when you consider that the most common argument in favour of the white to non-white ration of models, in, say, America, is that white people are a majority. In Kenya, it would be the other way around…but, nah, let’s give that one to the white girl, too.

      The actual underlying reason probably being something akin to ‘well, a white model just looks better’. Now THAT is silly.

  11.  Bizarrely, a hospital setting seems to one place where Crocs are entirely appropriate. They are, I am told, comfortable, they are cheap, they have closed toes for safety and they can be dipped in sterilizer, should it be needed. There’s no cloth or ties to transmit infection or absorb any nasty stuff.

    For a professional on their feet all day, making sure I don’t die, they can wear whatever shoes they see fit.

    Ditto the scrubs. Those things are comfortable. Bloggers shouldn’t be the only ones that get to work in their pajamas.

  12. Madeira is a gothic wonder in white. The uniform screams that catholicism and 1940’s war medicine had a child and it’s going to cut away disease, your suffering will be ignored. I would be in terror to have been hospitalized in that little Archipelago in the 50s. It’s great that it doesn’t appear to make it’s wearer look juvenile like the other uniforms.

  13. Boingers,

    Crocs are not closed toed, and are a pretty bad choice for hospital footwear.  Once some vomit comes through the holes and soaks your feet from a splash, many nurses forgo cros and move on to something safer.  Danskos are awesome once you get through the 3-5 shift break in period – though some folk say they are a little unstable bc the heel is pretty skinny compared to the footbed.  They are generally much more needle proof than crocs, but more likely to stain…

    Scrubs are awesome, to a point.  Garish designs aside, scrubs are cheap and easy to clean.  However, home washing of scrubs has been shown to not properly remove evil bacteria.  Hospitals that care wash their employee’s scrubs.  I’m not sure if it is the higher temps or the bleach that hospital laundries use that make this a reality.   

    There were some customer service projects done that claim that patients are happier if their staff are color coded, and that they can better id the candystriper from the doctor.  However, this requires a sign in your language of proficiency, that you can read from the gurney/bed/etc, to tell you who wears what color.  These days, color coding is mostly pushed by people who think it is cool but don’t always follow through.

    Little cloth covers on stethascopes are bad bc they carry a lot of evil germs.  Long sleeves aren’t so great either.  Don’t get me started on fanny packs!  But the worst of all are unwashed hands.  Even Flo knew that!

    Real professional nurses are obviously nurses bc they tell you they are nurses.  They say “hello, I am your nurse.”  Then they take good care of you (I hope!).  Colors and hats don’t mean much if people don’t communicate.

    the Fiat RN

    1. I knew a social worker who got Naf-resistant staph in an ingrown toenail. That was the day that I stopped wearing sandals to work.

  14. You want an “authentic” Indian nurse in a sari? :)
    Well, nothing beats Waheeda Rehman in the 1969 Bollywood tearjerker “Khamoshi”:

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