The History of Nursing Uniforms

Updated November 21, 2016

The appearance and style of nurses' uniforms has changed significantly during the past two centuries. As the profession became more respectable in the public eye, nurses have sought to improve the comfort and functionality of their clothing.

Prior to 1860

In the earliest historical accounts, monks, nuns and other religious workers did nursing duties, as permanent hospitals were not widespread prior to the 19th century. The first nursing uniforms were derived from nun's habits.

1860 to 1940

When Florence Nightingale opened her Training School for Nurses in 1860, the profession gained more respect and a standard uniform. One of her students designed a uniform that included a long-sleeved dress with a starched collar, an apron with shoulder straps, and a frilly cap that tied under the chin. Later, cape-like garments called tippets were added to the uniform.

Mid 20th century

During World War II, the nurse's floor-length dress was shortened to mid-calf, and the cap became more conservative in style, without the chin straps. In the 1950s and '60s, many uniforms dropped the apron for a bib style in the front, and the "pill box" hat was introduced.


During the '70s and '80s, disposable paper caps and aprons became more popular, and eventually capes and caps disappeared. As more men entered the profession, a simple white tunic uniform with epaulettes became the standard look for nurses.

1990 to the Present

During the '90s, nurses started wearing scrubs. The outfits were easier to clean and more comfortable to work in than dresses. Today, most nurses in the U.S. wear scrubs in a variety of colours and patterns.

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