Why Nurses Wear White and the Evolution of Nursing Uniforms

The color white signifies purity, innocence, cleanliness, honesty, and faith. These are qualities of the devoted and caring patient-centered nurse.  While white uniforms have been associated with nursing for a long time, this was not the case historically and the uniform has evolved over time.

The History of White Uniforms for Nurses

The first professional nurses were nuns. They wore traditional blue or gray nun attire and the purpose of their uniform was to protect them from contamination and the cold. Their clothing featured full-length sleeves and skirts, high collars, fitted aprons, veils to protect their hair, and belts which held necessary equipment such as scissors. Over time and as the nurse’s role evolved, uniforms followed suit. Sleeves and skirts became shorter, the collars became deep, allowing for more movement and comfort. Additionally, there was a shift from wearing belts to adding pockets for carrying essential equipment, which became much more than scissors.

The original uniform colors changed from blues and grays to white in the 1900s to signify cleanliness and asepsis. However, complaints regarding eye-fatigue in the operating room led OR personnel to adopt green as their uniform color choice. The green scrubs are still customary in many operating rooms. While white uniforms show spills and stains, white fabric can be bleached. Thus, white nurse uniforms remained the status quo until the 1960s when feminists argued that white signified diminished power. More colorful uniforms gradually became more accepted and popular. For instance, in the 1990s nurses began wearing the colorful scrubs that many still wear today.

Nursing Uniforms Today- Bring Back White?

Scrubs are comfortable, easy to clean, and inexpensive, but many may find them aesthetically unappealing. However, scrubs are worn by all divisions of healthcare personnel; doctors, physical therapists, medical assistants, and even housekeepers wear scrubs. A question that arises is: How do the patients know who the nurses are? With the issues related to professional image, non-nurse personnel might appear as nurses to patients and families and therefore weaken strides for improvement. In an era when nurses’ professional identity and pride is waning, a distinguishable professional uniform may be the solution.

A crisp, white uniform enhances the nurse image. It signifiers pride and the professional work nurses do. The traditional white nurse uniform also provides a professional appearance that exemplifies success and authority, and it commands great respect. Despite your uniform preference, the evolution of nursing and the paralleled uniform changes deserve attention.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Excelsior College, its trustees, officers, or employees.