Why the White Lab Coat Changed Medical History
Duncan Geere

Nurses adopted white FIRST, reluctantly.

Florence Nightingale during Crimean War c. 1855

There is also an interesting story about how nurses started wearing “white” aprons and uniforms before physicians. While many of the male Crusaders were put in the field to help the wounded it was nuns, in their usual black garb with white cuffs, bibs, aprons who were the first “nurses” and there is some supposition that nursing uniforms evolved from the Nun habit, or even a modification of a military uniform, emphasizing the relationship between nursing during war time, and nurses in the military.

Christina Bates wrote a great book published in 2012 on “A Cultural History of the Nurse’s Uniform”. Nurse uniforms in the mid to late 19th C., were very much like typical domestic workers, with a muslin white cap over their hair. So for a while, wanting to dispel the image of nurses as uneducated, and servile, many nursing trainees, especially after the Crimean War and the establishment of Florence Nightingale’s training program, were ambivalent about wearing uniforms at all.

Domestic servant style nursing “dress” c. mid to late 19th Century

However, in 1854 Ms. Nightingale required her nurses and trainees to wear identical “uniforms”, all grey. The Crimean nurses hated these ugly garments, but Ms. Nightingale was sure these long dresses with long sleeves and hems (don’t show the ankles!), heavy and unattractive would quell any notion of a soldier being attracted to a nurse and becoming “randy” with any nurse! After the war Ms. Nightingale required all trainee nurses to wear a white apron and ca over the brown dress.

Eventually a fashion sense took hold, and nurses in the 1830’s even up to the 20th C. followed the fashions of the time. But pragmatism finally won out, and plain, serviceable fabrics, made of wool, linen, or cotton in all colors were donned. These items were difficult to launder so nurses begain to wear white aprons, bibs, collars and cuffs that could be washed more often, but protect the uniform. In the early 20th C. two reports exposed the “free labor” provided for hospitals by nursing trainees, essentially exploitation. Thereafter hospitals were staffed only with nurses who had completed their training, and they wore their typical white “nursing graduate” uniform, or a uniform supplied by the hospital. So, white became a symbol of the “nurse as a professional occupation” with science, principles, and research to utilize in their practice. Well, the story goes on and on, and to this day, it is now difficult to tell a nurse from a janitor since hospital surgical scrub uniforms of rainbow colors became the norm. I must cite beside Ms. Bates excellent book, a wonderful article written in Medscape, “Nurse Uniforms” Who Cares what Nurses Wear:, published April 06, 2017.