Why do Nurses wear Uniforms?

Rich wrote a very interesting article regarding nurses’ uniforms and in many ways I agree with him. When I go to a hospital with family members I really can’t tell who’s a nurse anymore.

nurse holds a cell phoneMy mother was taken to the ER just this week and while we sat and watched the general busy-ness and absolute professionalism of the ER staff, the only people I could really identify were the doctors and they weren’t even wearing a uniform!

In fact we mistakenly asked a cleaner for a pan because she was wearing a uniform that looked more professional than the nurses who were all wearing a mishmash of scrubs and gowns; one nurse had a particularly fun jacket with smiley-faced vegetables all over it. Cute but professional? Hmmmm.

As for scrubs, they might be comfortable but they always look so dowdy and overwashed; the practise of wearing scrubs seems to me to be a case of “life imitating art” or in this case TV! The general unidentifiable jumble of uniforms in the ER detracted from the consummate nursing skill that was all around us.

So I have to suggest that if nurses want to wear a uniform then maybe we should all be wearing the same easily identifiable one – after all that is the whole point of a uniform. Uniforms stand for conformity and consistency. Uniforms are meant to allow people to instantly recognise a cohesive group of important individuals.

If we roll back time as Rich suggests then each level of nurse would be easily recognisable, just as we were when I started nursing in 1975. Up until fairly recently there wasn’t much confusion at all about who was who. Registered nurses wore white shoes and uniforms, student nurses wore caps, blue uniforms and brown shoes, EN’s wore their own colours and so on! Personally I’m not keen on any of that and felt then as I do now that a uniform can be a barrier.

A uniform may identify us but it can also set us apart because uniforms can confer some level of authority and exclusivity that might interfere in the nurse-patient relationship. I believe that type of hierarchical exclusivity was one reason why nurse’s uniforms became the hodgepodge, egalitarian affair they have become. The general assortment of uniforms was meant to place us on a more professional and level field as it were, thus nurses’ uniforms became so casual and diverse that in the 21st century a highly qualified  and professional nurse wearing a coat with smiley-faced vegetables seems perfectly okay.

So why do we wear uniforms? Nursing hasn’t always had the professional status we have now – uniforms actually reflect our roots in the lower-class service industries of the 19th century. Tapron nursehat’s the reason for the aprons and caps and big buckles that nurses used to be rigged out in up until the 1960′s and 70′s. Florence Nightingale didn’t do us any favours either by placing us firmly in the armed services and subservient to medical consultants; thus the uniform of a maid or handmaiden. Please….let’s not go back there!

I haven’t worn a uniform for 20 years and I haven’t had any problems with being recognised as a nurse – but that’s probably because I work in the community. Hospital-based nursing does need some different consideration due to the numbers of health professionals working there. However, in the community setting, my nursing practise is recognised by my clients through the way I care for them not by what I wear; and that’s how I knew who the nurses were in the ER this week. They were the ones that spoke gently to my mum, helped her respectfully and effectively and explained what the doctor just said.

I observed what I like to term as the “patient-nurse attunement”. This particular nursing quality just doesn’t exist between other health professionals and their patients. Our nurse attunement connects us to the basic needs in a human — that is to build a relationship, no matter how short term. This nurse-patient attunement allows us to gently and respectfully care for our patients physically, emotionally and socially. I think this is nursing’s absolute speciality and that is how we are known.

By all means have a uniform but let’s have one that is consistent — states what we do and doesn’t allow a barrier to come between us and our patients. But above all don’t believe for a minute that the uniform is what defines you as a nurse.

What do you think?

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17 Responses to Why do Nurses wear Uniforms?

  1. MrNetNurse says:

    Uniform uniforms? Very thoughtout article Fran.
    I agree that in the community it is not as important to wear a uniform as there is not the diversity of staff to distinguish between. In Hospital however its now a bit of a jumble. I have seen two different types of scrubs in the different hospitals I visit: there is the new version that is made from a thick and good wearing dark blue fabric that the A & E staff wear that hs their insignia embroided on the front plus it says their name and role. There is also the old version the Theatre staff wear that is made from a thin fabric that has a well worn, washed a thousand times appearance. I do like the version worn by A & E staff as it looks professional. Rich

  2. ara-c2009 says:

    Uniform? Hello Rich,
    I totally agree to what you’ve said it’s not the dress that can make the difference.But just llike you said I am also employed in a tertiary hospital where the uniform of nurses varies depending on what year you enter if in that year they are introducing new design of uniform that will be your uniform but not asking others who got there before you to surrender the old designs.So we end up having so many designs of uniform roaming around the hospital. The designs of nurses’s uniform even matches those of the cleaners. So it made me think, whoever had the influence on what nurses wear in the hospital had no admiration for the nursing profession..people up there just don’t care about how nurses feel when we are mistakenly identify as cleaner, no offense meant here, anyway as nurses we do really clean to promote environment conducive to healing..but what my point is somebody up there thought they should not be bother to differentiate their employees from one another as they are working for the same institution…this is what happen when people outside of nursing perspective decide for nurses. Do they consult nurses about uniforms??.who have final say?..

  3. Ulli says:

    Why do nurses wear uniforms? I have trained overseas and we had as a uniform just a color. In one place it was anything white and in another anything blue or white. I loved that since I could wear what I would feel comfortable in.We wore name tags and were easily recognized as nurses. Having now worked in Australia for almost 20 years I have not found a single uniform that I feel ‘at home in’. Now I work in a place where a uniform is not required and I have to say that I have never had anyone mistake me for anyone else but a staff member. I would abolish uniforms and introduce the color system.

  4. lpeel says:

    It’s what’s in the unform that counts! I must agree with what each of you has stated. A s a nurse manager one of the problems I have, is the ability of the chossen uniform stockests in supplying uniforms in a prompt manner. I have staff leave before ever recieving their uniform orders. Now a number of my departments are wearing navy scrubs with thier names and designation on them and I must say they do look professional and tidy ( at the start of their shift, lol).
    Beacuse of the delays in getting uniforms I now tell staff to dress in a neat and tidy manner, and attempt to get their uniform if they can. But more importantly I must remind myself that if they are looking a little untidy, its the nurse in the uniform that counts!

  5. breezabee says:

    Xmas Scrubs! I’m a nurse in Perth and wear navy blue scrubs with Hospital Logo & Title on front. I must say i do LOVE wearing the scrubs! It’s like I haven’t even got out of my pajamas! :) … No seriously, We used to wear WHITE zip up tops/dresses that used to carry nice looking bodily fluids in view for all to see! Including that one only washed pink bra available to wear that day! … So having navy blue is great! And the style of scrubs is much more practicle & comfortable whilst looking professional at the same time. Also with regards to your Nurse with the vegetable heads …. Firstly – very funny! …. Secondly – i just ordered in bulk from USA a heap of different style Xmas Print Scrub tops for my fellow nursing staff on my ward! …. They may not ‘look’ as professional …. but everyone looks fabulous & my… do the patients & families love them. Yes we are human too … and know how to bring some light & joy to the dull run down tertiary buildings that we call hospitals! :) ….

  6. patience says:

    xmas scrubs well as an absolute devotee of xmas and all it entails I would certainly wear your xmas scrubs – even if I did look like a short, plump elf!

  7. hope says:

    Uniforms and infection control Uniforms are not only worn to identify us as nurses, but also play a role in infection control.
    During my working days overseas, everybody wore white uniforms, either tops and pants, dresses, or other.
    The material was 100% cotton, comfortable to wear.
    We were expected to get changed at work, at the beginning of a shift, and change into mufti at the end of a shift.
    Of course, it meant having appropriate changing rooms with showers, lockers, etc.with spare uniforms available, so you could have a clean uniform anytime. It would be nice to have these facilities available to everybody who comes into contact with patients. I find the new uniforms uncomfortable and unpleasant to wear as they are often made of polyester, and don’t breathe well.
    But, as said previously, the most important matter is what’s in the uniform.

  8. Jen Smith says:

    Lets get rid of them I must admit to always being anti uniform. Happy to deface it at any opportunity – brightly coloured socks etc. Firstly uniforms supplied are generally poor quality and poorly fitting. Not to mention the carry on if you get the wrong size and the unreasonable lengthy wait when you’ve ordered. In a smaller hospital there is not really the issue of not knowing people as everyone knows everyone. We wear ID’s, we introduce ourselves, does a uniform make more of a difference. Can’t we have general guidelines as to what to wear. I would have a supply of clothing that I wear only to my hospital work – as I do with my current uniform. Comfortable & bright. Lets get some colour in them too. I don’t think we are more or less professional because of our uniforms. I agree that it’s what’s inside that counts. Some other health professional don’t wear a uniform – lets all get rid of them!!!

  9. lillit says:

    Uniforms In our ward we wear polo tops with Children’s Ward embroidered on them. They are all nice and comfortable, at the start of each shift always look neat and tidy. There is no where to change other than the toilet, and i for one have no wish to put my clothes on a toilet seat. Every nurse these days has to wear badges, so does it matter ehat we wear, as long as we look after our patients. Knowing at the end of your shift you have done your job, leaving a patient, comfortable, dry and pain free as possible. It’s not the uniform that makes a nurse but how they relate to patients and anticipate their needs.

  10. Bernhard says:

    I thought I’d had a previous post here…. but can’t find it…(maybe elsewhere). Definitely should have uniforms. Always. It’s the job that defines it. Who cares if doctors wear their own clothes. Nurses aren’t doctors, and should wear uniforms just so the community doesn’t make the mistake of insulting a nurse by calling her/him a doctor.

  11. shell44 says:

    We wear navy pants and Light blue or a certain print shirt at our nursing home at christmas time we are allowed/encouraged to dress up in xmas tshirts and the like and the residents love it .

  12. IronMaiden says:

    I waqs once heartily abused by a manger for having the temerity to wear a tasteful Christmas t-shirt to work in the ED on Christmas day. Those unfortunate to have to attend the Ed on Xmas loved it and my colleagues thouhgt it colourful and cheery. Not so this manager who had a face that would stop a train and breasts the size of watermelons that were crammed into a knit top.

  13. nina says:

    The day I have to wear a polo shirt as part of my “professional” uniform I will leave nursing, we already look like we work in a supermarket. I draw the line at looking like I’m of to a footy match.

  14. Mandyd says:

    i would much prefer scrubs and something that does not require constant ironing and that does not get crinkled during the day and get chipped as your shirt ir creased…

  15. Melissa says:

    Uniforms – as a nurse I find them depressing and humilliating….

  16. pammy bear says:

    Sooo would love a uniform that I can: get on beds, on floor, mobilise patients without showing my ‘bits’ and not look like a Big W employee,(yes, have been mistaken for one!)
    Current uniform’s buttons small, stitching – yes I have done! blah blah.
    Veggie print in ED – possibly staff redeployed (a constant from kids ward).
    Trying to change uniform- a nightmare of stagnant thought.
    Scrubs with name and designation in BIG letters for aging population, public … yes please!

    [Oh, I work for QLD health…]

  17. Danielle Bayliss says:

    I’ve worn some awful uniforms in my time. But the best, by far, for anyone working in a clinical role are the Goretex overalls that paramedics wear. They ‘breathe’, they repel fluids and they have built-in flaps that give when you stretch. Wearing your own gear is the pits. You tend to wear your clothes to and from work, rather than keep a set at work (as if any of us get lockers anyway), and no matter how much PPE you wear or how good your practice, you inevitably drive home with blood, pus, pee, crap or green spit smeared on your gear: charming. I’m cool on scrubs: they look fine and are comfy to wear. As for other types of uniforms: they always seem to be chosen (in my opinion) by very old ladies who want the profession to revert back to the ’50s. By the way, if anyone thinks their uniform is bad, go and work in the UK: there’s plenty of places there where the nurses wear steel buckled belts, pork-pie hats, white capes, frilled armbands and even aprons. They all look like they have just come of a WW2 miniseries movie set!

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