Over the years, the nursing profession has faced an image overhaul that concretely defined her role in the society. The nurse uniforms which exude the most identifiable mark of the profession in the health sector and the society have also faced alterations that greatly affect the public’s perception of nurses. In an exhibit at the Philadelphia’s Fabric Workshop, many conclude that nurses are no longer identifiable with the profession.
The contemporary transitions that constantly evolved to define her busy role has brought forth an identity crisis that even patients, family members, other health professionals and workers have difficulty labeling her role in the health care setting. This transition was highly observed in the last two decades as nurses have found the ease in wearing casual and sometime colorful uniform attire (Harrion, 2001:41)(Houweling, 2004:42). The identity of the white uniform became lost as nurses prefer the comfort and ease of the scrub uniforms (Houweling, 2004:40).
In the past decades, the nurse in a white uniform communicated a professional confidence brought about by the competency of her job and training. The nurse’s cap was also the known distinguishing mark that respectable nurses wore based on Florence Nightingale’s 1874 model(Dodd,2005:7).To look back, the earliest uniforms focused more on functionality and feminine virtue and were more or less associated with the religious orders and military nursing groups (Ellis and Harley, 2004: 185).
The propriety of wearing a cap also followed uniformity as a respectable way for women to earn and be distinguished at the institution. The early uniforms were long, starched long sleeves with detachable collars and cuff that included a cape that could be worn during the winter months (Houweling, 2004:41). By the end of the 19th century, the functional white dress was adapted that catered to the evolution of pantsuits in the 60’s. The traditional nurse uniform has existed in many variants from the dress, apron and cap yet the basic style has remained recognizable in many years (Hallam, 41).
In the late 60’s, psychiatric nurses pushed against the white uniform in their setting and were finally allowed to wear street clothes in the 1970’s. In the 1980’s, many hospitals no longer required nurses to wear the nursing cap given their expanded nursing roles (Ellis, Hartley & Love: 184). Harrion explained that the cap discourages the men from entering the profession and the cap is identified with a “handmaiden” mark attached to it which is contradicted as male nurses were unlikely forced to wear the nurses’ cap, this status was reserved for the female nurses.
Another insistence is that the cap was quite hard to keep clean which is again contradicted merely by the fact that starched caps can be dry cleaned. Even the nursing pin which was a significant mark and a “coat of arms” of the nursing profession has lost its appeal. Contemporary nurses are now reduced to wearing comfortable scrubs that were once limited to the specialty areas such as the CCU, ICU and ER where practicality is an issue.
In Japan, nurses were once kimono clad and appeared like the under-maid types to keep their tradition alive (Takahashi, 2004: 4). Stimulated by the women’s position in the western society, the western concept of the profession gained popular adherence as the white uniform was adapted for all Japanese nurses in the health service (Takahashi:5).
This process faced grandstanding as Japanese doctors trained Europe pushed for the adoption of the white uniform among the Japanese nurses in an effort to positively uplift and identify the professional nurse. After many years of retaining their traditional garb, Japan soon realized that issues of hygiene and practicality were at stake. Further they were able to realize and understand that the nursing uniform embodies probity and purity that is needed to overhaul the image of the female workers in Japan.
Today, the nursing profession is again facing major upheavals that de-emphasize the purity of the standard white uniform in favor of the comfortable scrubs. This is a dilemma that nurses face in a work setting where many other caregivers wear the same garb. Patients and other health workers have trouble identifying the nurse from the rest of the ordinary caregivers. The public image of the nursing profession is suffering as the effort to communicate the value of the profession is diminishing. Mangum, Garrison, Lind, Thackeray and Wyatt once recommend that nurses wear clothing that clearly distinguish them as professional nurses (Ellis, Hartley & Love, 2004: 184).
Others believed that the white standard uniform exudes power and authority compared to the rumpled and disordered appearance of the colored scrubs. Despite the many images equated with the profession and the media’s continued assault on the appearance of nurses there is an immediate need to revamp the current attire. White according to most nurses denotes sanitation and cleanliness; they could be tailored and modified to enhance the figure using a fine material with insignias that could denote rank and position would give power and authority over the other ordinary caregivers in the health institution. Given the physical exertion of the profession, the cap might pose to be too unrealistic.
This could prove to be more amenable rather than seeing professional nurses around the hospital garbed in attire that are commonly worn by the orderlies. This is an image problem and physicians would probably like to see nurses in uniforms of power rather than in rumpled an colored attires dressed like ordinary orderlies. The uniform is what makes nurses look good and present a professional appearance.
When one wears costumes that convey their attributes, virtues and training, the patient sees the nurse as someone he can trust along with his physician. Wearing a well-tailored uniform and displaying the nursing pin helps nurses from being belittled by patients and their families. Nurses give up their power and authority as a profession when not dressed uniformly and loose their self-esteem when viewed ordinarily (Masters, 2005:130). The uniform identifies the specific and unique place that professional nurses have in the health care system (Masters, 2005:112).
Thus, if nurses wish for doctors to treat them as colleagues in healthcare, society to acknowledge them as authorities, and to be paid as the profession deserves, the professional image should be insisted. Therefore if one wishes to be treated as a “ministering angel” (Hallam: 133); or as a professional and as a privileged individual, the professional appearance must portray a positive public image (Dodd, 2005: 6).
Hallam, Julia. Nursing the Image: Media, Image and Professional Identity. Routledge.
Masters, Kathleen. (2005). Role Development in Professional Nursing Practice. Jones and Bartlett Publishers.
Ellis, Janice Rider and Hartley, Love, Celia. (2004). Nursing in today’s World: Challenges, Issues and Trends. Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
Takahashi, Aya. (2004). The Development of the Japanese Nursing Profession: Adopting and Adapting Western Influences. Routledge.
Harrion, Lois. (20010. Professional Practical/Vocational Nursing. Thomson Delmar Learning.
Houweling, Lynn. (2004, April). Image, Function, and Style: A history of the nursing uniform. American Journal of Nursing, 104, 4. p. 40 – 48
Dodd, Elizabeth, Bates, C., Rousseau, N. (eds). (2005). On All Frontiers: Four Centuries of Canadian Nursing. Ottawa: University of Ottawa.