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What did nurses wear in the 1940s?

Updated July 20, 2017

Nurse uniforms in the 1940s consisted of dresses, aprons and caps. Nurses also wore a pin that described their rank in the hierarchy of nurses. Nurse uniforms were standardised in England in 1948 when the National Health Service came into being. These dresses were calf-length and more practical and comfortable than the long tippet, or nursing cloak, that military nurses wore during the First World War.

The Nurse's Cap

The white nursing cap is both practical and ceremonial. Historically, it was fashioned like a nun's habit and was meant to celebrate the nuns who had worked in hospitals in earlier times. It kept the nurse's hair neat and looked professional and authoritative. Eventually, different kinds of caps and buckles were worn to signify different ranks of nurses. When a nursing student graduated, she was allowed to take part in the "capping" ceremony, wherein she received her certificate and her nurse's cap.

What Nurses Wore in WWII

In Britain, the Gray Lady Service military nurses wore grey, cotton shirtwaist -belted dresses with detachable white collars, along with cuffs and epaulettes. They previously wore grey veils, but this was replaced in 1942 by grey coifs attached to a coronets with a red cross in the centre. The nurse's aides wore blue pinafores with short-sleeved white blouses that had service patches on the left sleeves. They also wore blue caps with white bands and service badges.

Nurses Pins

Metal, silver or gold nursing pins have traditionally been part of nurse uniforms; they identify the nursing school. There is a "pinning ceremony" where nurses receive their pins when they graduate from the nursing school. In the 1940s, the Maltese cross was used in many of the nursing pins and represented the tradition of medical care that originated with the order of Christian warriors, known as the Knights Hospitaller.

Male Nurses in the 1940s

Even though there very few male nurses (no more than 1 per cent) in 1948 when the NHS began in Britain, there were male military nurses during the WWII. In 1940, the American Nurses Association established the Men Nurses' Section. Male nurse uniforms have not changed as much as those of their female colleagues. Male nurses usually wore white tunics with different coloured epaulettes to signify their rank.

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About the Author

Wendy Dickstein is an award-winning writer and editor with over 30 years' experience as an academic, literary, legal and technical editor and journalist. She writes about security technology, real estate, science, health and literature. She has a Master of Arts from Melbourne University and belongs to the International Federation of Periodical Press.