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Although nursing costumes have changed throughout the centuries, the femininity, dignity and grace so characteristic of the profession has never wavered in the styles chosen.

Nurses’ uniforms have experienced dramatic alterations since their widespread emergence in the 19th century. From starched dresses to comfortable unisex scrubs, the design of nurses’ uniforms changed based on time period, functionality, and country of origin.

Prior to the 1800s, nursing was a casual profession left to the monks, nuns, and women with low morals who set up make-shift hospitals, usually in churches. Nursing did not become a respected profession until the emergence of Military Nursing during the Crimean War.

Florence Nightingale's historical contributions to the field of nursing eventually led to the creation of the Nightingale Training School for Nurses, which opened in 1860 in St. Thomas hospital in London. The recognizable nurses’ attire was first created before the 19th century in Nightingale's school. One of Nightingale's students designed the uniform, and its style changed very little up until the 1940s. From the late 19th century onwards, nursing became a respected profession.

Each hospital designed its own uniform. A lot of thought went into the image the hospital wished to convey, and the resulting designs reflect sometimes contradictory messages about nursing as a profession. The designs alternately conveyed servitude, yet authority, domestic service, yet professionalization. They were meant to be simply functional, yet were also emblematic. Some hospitals chose for their uniforms the current fashions worn by domestic servants, including cap and bibbed apron

Beginning in the 1880s, nurses donned uniforms that were considered to be "state of the art" protection against illness, but were also functional expressions of feminine virtue. The uniform allowed for nurses to effectively treat patients, while also maintaining a respectable appearance. The original nurses’ uniform was known as the "fever proof" uniform, and covered the entire body, although it left the face and the hands uncovered.

The uniform was used not only for hygienic reasons, but also for identification purposes. Nurses needed to be easily recognized in a hospital setting. The traditional dress included a long sleeved dress with a starched collar, sometimes including a bowtie, a starched apron with shoulder straps, and a frilly cap that was kept in place with ties under the chin.

The First World War saw a changing trend in nursing uniforms as a need to mass produce garments, coupled with a demand for easy cleaning of these garments, increased production. For example, the United States used a drab grey fabric for nurse dresses. Nurses were also required to wear a Red Cross badge on their arm while they served overseas. At this time, tippets were added to nurses’ wardrobes. This was a short cape-like garment worn over the shoulders with a badge or stripes sewn on the front to denote rank. Large, starched, floor length aprons were worn by nurses assisting in the operating rooms. This was a sanitary move, allowing nurses to care for multiple patients with pristine aprons that could be easily cleaned.

During the Second World War, the dress changed once again by shortening the floor length garment to mid calf and altering the style of cap to be more conservative without the chin straps that held it in place. While badges continued to be used, cap styles began to denote rank along with buckle design. Women were continually recruited into nursing in the 1930s. Nursing was an attractive alternative to typing or receptionist duties, and the use of eye-catching uniforms helped to make nursing more appealing to young women.

In the 1950s nurses’ uniforms continued a rapid evolution in style. Becoming ever more functional, the uniform was short sleeved with a bibbed-front instead of the traditional apron. The caps saw a change into the "pill box" style.
Due to high volume in hospitals, uniforms were designed to be simple in style and cleaning, and the starching of the garments was avoided to speed up laundry services in the hospitals. It was during the 1950s that the use of disposable paper caps became popular. The surge of cultural change in the 1960s resulted in open collared uniforms, moving away from the image of purity portrayed by the traditional nurse attire. Simpler uniforms and “scrubs” started to show up in select hospitals and starched white garments were pushed aside in favor of this more comfortable and functional type of uniform. Of course, this trend is not consistent between countries or even hospitals, but it was the beginning of the end for traditional nurse attire.

As male nurses became more numerous in the 1980s, a simple white tunic decorated with epaulettes distinguished them as nurses. Caps and capes eventually faded out of use. In many parts of the world, nurses continue to wear the original style of nurses’ garb despite the popularity of scrubs.



At a Lorrain School of Nursing Tea, a fashion show of uniforms through the years was presented. In the photo below, 7 nurses model uniforms from 1642 to 1966.

Left to right: Mrs Loretta Tario models the uniform worn by Jeanne Mance, the first secular nurse in North America. The dress is an exact replica of the gown worn by Jeanne Mance when she presented herself to the King of France seeking permission to come to Canada to found a hospital.

Next, Mrs. Frances Hemsley wears the uniform of Florence Nightingale in the 19th century.

Miss Julia Lynn, first year nursing student at Lorrain, wears a 1916 uniform.

Miss Helen Gust, next in line, wears a uniform worn by the first Lorrain graduates in 1919.

Miss Janet Morris, next ,wears a model worn at Lorrain till 1963. This consisted of a blue dress covered by a starched bib and apron.

Mrs. Diane Sheahan wears the uniform typical of the style worn by graduate nurses in the mid 60’s and on.
Miss Louise Wright models the “new” look in uniforms introduced at Lorrain in1963. The new style was a belted, knee –length, pink striped dress.

Lorrain students in their pink and white striped, starched, front buttoned dress-style uniforms. Name tags, white shoes, white stockings and cap with stripes on the corner denoting year of the programme completed the uniform.  Stockings were in 2 pieces and held up with either garter belts or girdles. Panty hose did not become available until about 1966 and were very expensive to purchase.

Seen in 1965 in the newest style of uniform are -  (LtoR) Joan Bulger (66) senior class president, Allayne Ledsham (67) Intermediate class president, Gail Nichol –Secretary, Treena Lang (68) Junior class president and Dianne Campbell (66) President.

Below is a photo of the 1961 class wearing the navy wool capes.