Let Uniforms Tell Stories – Focus on the Nurse’s Uniform

Christina Bates

Canadian Museum of Civilization


Uniforms are really good at telling stories about work, organizations, and individual identities. Whether military, official, religious or occupational, uniforms immediately identify the role of the wearer, conveying authority, virtue, expertise, obedience or responsibility. Uniforms can greatly enhance the value of historical or ethnographic collections.

Most people think of the military when they think of uniforms, but of course there are many other types of uniforms to collect. Depending on the goal of your collecting, occupational uniforms can be great sources, especially to preserve and interpret institutional histories and work history. As a test case, this module will show how to create and interpret the nurse’s uniform as part of a clothing collection, based on the Canadian Nursing History Collection at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. 


 Why collect the nurse’s uniform?


Uniforms provide a balance to collections of fashionable clothing

Have a look at the portrait here of Elizabeth Scarlett, and the photograph of her uniform in the Canadian Nursing History Collection.

While her uniform has some fashionable elements, it is essentially a practical working outfit.

Nursing uniforms make for a very different collection, compared to the usual fashionable clothing found in many museum and personal collections, which are often biased towards the finest clothing, since that is what is more frequently saved and donated. But if your collection’s purpose is to document social, cultural or community history, uniforms can provide a fascinating way to tell new stories.



Uniforms are the most public type of clothing

Uniforms are the public face of an institution, designed to communicate the functions and values of that institution. Within the organization, they also serve to create group identity and loyalty. Uniform collections have great potential to tell stories about the institutions they represent, as well as what they meant to the individuals who wore them.



Uniforms tell stories about working women


Ruth Carter’s proud graduation photograph and pristine white uniform show both her practical and feminine sides.

Throughout most of the twentieth century, nursing uniforms were designed for, and worn by, women. Nurses’ uniforms are particularly suited to revealing the construction of a unique ideal of femininity within the masculine structure of the hospital. Until later in the twentieth century, most military and occupational uniforms were worn by men. Collecting nurse’s uniforms gives the opportunity to represent working women. You can also document military nursing through uniforms.

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.

What can we learn from the nurse’s uniform?

Some questions to ask

Who wore the uniform and how did she feel about it?

How did the uniform satisfy the needs of both the hospital/school and the pupil nurse?

Where did design of the uniform come from? How closely did the uniform follow or divert from conventional clothing and other women’s working dress?

What were the elements of the uniform (bib, cap, cuffs, apron, shoes, stockings), and how did they change?

A sample questionnaire for nurses about their uniform


Creating nursing identity

Worn by the largest workforce in the health care system, the nurse’s uniform created nursing identity for thousands of women for almost 150 years. When first introduced in the nineteenth century, the simple outfit elevated nurses as a respectable and disciplined occupation group. It came to represent a profession based on discipline and expertise. Woven into its fabric are many fascinating stories about women’s work, health care, hospitals, communities, and practical clothing design.


Christina Bates, A Cultural History of the Nurse’s Uniform (Gatineau, PQ: Canadian Museum of Civilization, 2012)

Canadian Nursing History Collection Online

Mark Dion, and J. Morgan Puett,  RN: The Past, Present, and Future of the Nurses’ Uniform (Philadelphia: Center for the Study of the History of Nursing, University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing and Fabric Workshop and Museum, 2003)

Elizabeth Ewing, Women in Uniform Through the Centuries (London: B.T. Batsford, 1975)

Julia Hallam, Nursing the Image: Media, Culture and Professional Identity (London: Routledge, 2000)

Lynn Houweling, “Image, Function, and Style: A History of the Nursing Uniform” in American Journal of Nursing 104, no. 4 (April 2004): 40–48.

Kathryn McPherson, “‘The Case of the Kissing Nurse’: Femininity, Sexuality, and Canadian Nursing, 1900–1970” in Gendered Pasts: Historical Essays in Femininity and Masculinity in Canada, ed. by Kathryn McPherson, Cecilia Morgan, and Nancy M. Forestell (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 179–287

Janet Muff, ed., Socialization, Sexism and Stereotyping: Women’s Issues in Nursing, (St. Louis, MO: C.V. Mosby, 1982)

Nurses Uniforms, Past and Present