Vintage photographs and film footage from 100 years ago show that hospital uniforms were a lot different back then. What you might not know is why things have changed so much. What has led to hospital uniforms looking so different? Are modern uniforms more about aesthetics than function?
Alsco is a Salt Lake City, Utah company that pioneered hospital uniform rentals back in the late 19th century. They are very familiar with some of the older hospital uniforms that are no longer in use. They say that today’s uniforms didn’t come into being by accident. There are good reasons behind most of the uniform changes.
Here are three traditional hospital uniforms that have long since disappeared:
1. White Surgical Gowns
Dig up some pictures of World War II surgical rooms and you will discover that surgeons used to wear all-white hospital gowns. Their caps and masks were white as well. Even OR nurses wore white. Why? Because white was considered both hygienic and pure. Never mind that white fabric isn’t inherently more hygienic than fabric of any other color.
The problem with plain white in the surgical suite is that it can be difficult to look at. Between the bright lights overhead and the contrasting color of bright red blood, surgeons struggled with the visuals during long surgical procedures. They also complained of headaches as a result of the reflection of surgical lights off bright white uniforms.
A French surgeon by the name of René Leriche would have none of it. He began wearing blue scrubs during World War I. His idea didn’t catch on at the time, but it did many decades later. Hospitals started switching to green surgical scrubs in the 1970s to reduce eye strain in surgical suites.
2. White Nurse Uniforms
Nurses also wore white for the same perceived hygiene benefits. Like their counterparts in the surgical suite, nurses were covered in white from head to toe. From their dresses to their aprons to the hats worn on their heads, everything was white.
They didn’t suffer from the same sorts of eye strain issues, but there was another problem: keeping white uniforms clean. Alsco can verify how difficult that is. Anyway, when cost-cutting measures in the 1970s led hospitals to stop providing free uniform laundering, nurses decided they no longer wanted to wear white. They wanted something easier to launder. Colored scrubs became the norm.
3. Candy Striper Uniforms
Do you remember the teenage candy stripers that used to roam hospital halls delivering flowers and passing out magazines? They are still around; they just aren’t as easily recognized. Why? Because the candy striper pinafore has been retired.
Candy stripers got their name from the red and white pinafores they used to wear. The uniforms resembled candy canes. But the culture finally evolved to a place where candy striper uniforms were perceived as being demeaning to the volunteers who wore them.
As new healthcare laws began redefining the duties candy stripers were allowed to perform, hospitals also began updating their uniforms. They phased out the red white pinafore and replaced them with casual slacks and shirts.
Yes, hospital uniforms have changed considerably over the last 100 years. But most of the uniform changes have been implemented for practical reasons. Green surgical scrubs make life easier in the operating room. Colored scrubs are easier for nurses to keep clean. Business casual uniforms for young volunteers bring more dignity to their work. If you are fond of the nostalgia of those older uniforms, no worries. They live on in pictures and films.