How to collect the nurse’s uniform?

Nurses’ uniforms are often preserved by their wearers or school

The nurse’s uniform was introduced in the second half of the nineteenth century, first in Protestant Europe, and spread around the world by the 1870s (religious sisters wore their habits in Catholic hospitals).  The nurse’s uniform was part of a strategy to legitimize the first nurse training schools, which were usually attached to hospitals. Each school had an exclusive design. Nurses were fiercely attached to the uniforms of their own school.

By the 1980s, most of the hospital nursing schools closed as nurse education was moved to educational institutions, and the uniform was abandoned. But former nurses often hold onto their old uniforms. Sometimes a hospital, or a nursing school alumnae association, preserve examples of their uniforms, and they might be willing to make a donation.

Get the whole uniform

How many separate parts are there to this 1917-18 uniform? There are seven: dress, bib, apron, collar, two cuffs and cap (as well as black shoes and black stockings).  Make sure you get all the pieces!  Plus the school and graduation pins.

There were subtle changes in the uniform as a student progressed through years of training – such as new colour, apron straps or cap.  If possible, get the various uniforms worn by an individual at all stages of her training.

Get a whole range of uniforms

Note the short sleeves of this one-piece uniform. At most schools in the 1930s-40s, sleeves were shortened, and cuffs eliminated, along with separate collar.  In the 1950s-70s, bib and aprons were usually eliminated.  It would also be good to acquire a representative sample of a school’s uniforms as they changed over the years. 

For a short period of time, some schools provided a uniform of tunic and pants to male nurses– get one of these if you can.

Graduate (as opposed to student) nurses who worked in hospitals sometimes were required to wear a specific uniform –different from the student uniform – but often made their own choices on what to wear. You could collect uniforms worn by former practicing nurses – like these nurses in daring pantsuits.


Keep contextual information

It is very important to record pertinent information about uniforms.  Often museums get donations of family clothing without dates or information about who wore it. But it is usually possible to pin down the date, school and wearer of nurses’ uniforms. 

This picture shows a letter from the nursing superintendent to a prospective student, giving instructions on how to make up her uniform.  If possible, it would be good to collect associated archival material such as photographs, letters, student notebooks and scrapbooks, as well as oral histories recording nurses’ experiences of training and practice.

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