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(*from just £2.50)

Free UK Delivery
(*on orders over £75)

UK Manufactures
since 1950

Speedy Delivery
on all Stocked Items

History of UK nurse uniforms: 1800s to present day

Fashion, society, historic events and even religion have all played a part in the evolutionary journey of nurse’s uniforms.

Before the foundation of modern nursing in the 1800s nuns were primarily responsible for caring for the sick and injured and so the very first official nurse uniform bares close resemblance to the nun’s habit.

Many past uniform influencers have been overtaken by functionality, practicality, and comfort – and as with any uniform, fashion will always have a part to play.

Join us on a fascinating trip back in time to discover the descendants of today’s modern incarnation.

Scrub up, here we go!

Complete Timeline Of UK Nurse Uniforms

1800s

Not only is Florence Nightingale acknowledged as the ‘mother’ and founder of modern nursing, she was also credited with transforming the role from a vocation to a profession.

This paved the way for women – nursing was a considered a female role back in the day – to become respected healthcare professionals and the first uniform represented these values and high standards of hygiene.
She really was a revolutionary force for both women and healthcare.

1800s Nurse Uniforms

Serving as a manager and trainer of nurses during the Crimean War ‘The Lady with the Lamp’, as she became known, pioneered both nursing schools and uniforms which gave nurses a professional appearance and identity.

It consisted of a full-length, long-sleeved grey dress made of tweed which was designed to protect the wearer from infection and a scarf worn as a sash bearing the name of the hospital.

The first nurse’s cap was invented, keeping hair neat and out of harm’s way.

This very first standard uniform very much resembled a nun’s habit.
According to healthcare historians one of the most useful aspects of the uniform was its ‘utility belt’ known as a nurse’s chatelaine, retrospectively dubbed ‘the bat belt of its day’!

Both practical and fashionable it was a belt with metal brooch which kept essentials such as scissors, a whistle and a pencil close to hand.

While the uniform itself has evolved to meet modern standards of healthcare and comfort, there is opinion modern day versions still don’t have deep enough pockets to carry all the essentials.

Note taken!

1900-1945

Alongside the establishment of the world’s first nursing school in London in 1860 – which changed the face of healthcare training and hygiene practices – Florence Nightingale’s uniform continued to enable nursing to gain increasing respect as a profession.

And it would change very little – until the First World War…

The Early 1900s & The Role Of Florence Nightingale On UK Nurse Uniforms

Florence Nightingale recognised the challenges of nursing and did everything she could to raise standards, conditions and morale – it just goes to show the impact a uniform can have on both the wearer and the profession.

Something which still holds true to this day!

Apart from the introduction of starched aprons, the standard uniform remained the same until the onslaught of World War I.

Nurses were called upon to treat huge numbers of causalities in hospitals and on the battlefield and the heavy-duty dresses and aprons were found to hamper movement while caring for the injured.

The solution was to replace dresses with lighter-weight skirts and military nurses wore capes to donate their rank.

The next chapter in this evolutionary story would see the recognition of male nurses with the passing of the Nurse Registration Act in 1919.

1945-1960

This was a huge period of change for nurses and healthcare in general.

World War II brought new challenges to the nurse’s uniform and the introduction of a new, ground-breaking National Health Service signalled a new era for the profession.

Things were about to get cleaner and ‘practically couture’!

1950s Nurse Uniforms – The influence of World War I and World War II

While the First World War brought an end to bulky full-length dresses and aprons, by the time World War II broke out nurses were wearing white uniforms with a red cross off the battlefield and a khaki ‘British Battledress’ on the battlefield.

The launch of the NHS in 1948 brought the first opportunity to create a true standardised, more practical healthcare uniform across all hospital and the designer was none other than the man behind the Queen’s wedding dress and Coronation robes, Norman Hartnell.

The British fashion designer and Royal dressmaker was commissioned to design some of the first NHS uniforms which saw hemlines rise to just below the knee, short sleeves, a wrap-around apron, cap.

There was excitement among nursing staff when the Norman Hartnell creations were unveiled – anecdotally captured in the BBC’s ‘Call the Midwife’ series with the hospital matron declaring: “They’re practically couture!”

Gloves and masks also made an appearance for the first time as infection control became a greater priority.

The uniforms came in a range of colours to signify student and qualified nurses ranging from yellow to mauve.

They were functional, could be easily mass produced and withstood the rigours of industrial laundering.

And we’re delighted to say Harveys Workwear played its part in this uniform revolution too!

Not long after we were established in 1950, we were contracted as a main NHS supplier, producing this new phase of nurse’s uniform to the strict and exacting standards laid down by this innovative and much-admired healthcare institution.

Shortly after the Newcastle Dress was introduced.

It was more fitted, featured a Peter Pan style collar and a zip at the back and despite being described at ‘restrictive, it was worn from the 60s to the 90s and was particularly popular in northern NHS hospitals.

1960-1980

With a standardise uniform in place, it continued to develop it both colour and style.

Before 1948 hospitals chose their own uniforms but the NHS brought cohesion and consistency across a growing healthcare system.

1960s & 1970s Nurse Uniforms – Open Neck & Drop Of The Hat

These designs were refined throughout the 60s and 70s with shortened skirts, slimmer waists, the introduction of blue and white pinstripe, removable sleeves and the use of more durable fabrics.

Although men had been working in the nursing profession for around 40 years to some degree, it wasn’t until the 60s the UK’s first male nurse uniform, a smart white high-necked jacket, was introduced.

Open neck dresses appeared in the 60s and cotton caps disappeared in the 70s, being replaced by disposable versions.

1980s Nurse Uniforms – Plastic Aprons

Starched dresses and white cotton aprons were a mainstay of the 70s but by the 80s cotton aprons were replaced by plastic for hygiene and convenience.

1990-Modern Day

The nurse’s uniform is one of the most recognisable across the globe and to think it all started here in the UK thanks to Florence Nightingale’s recognition and demand for a garment that worked for the wearer as well as the patient.

So many factors have helped it to adapt and evolve over the decades, with yet another seismic shift in the 90s which was inspired by ‘surgical greens’.

1990s Nurse Uniforms

More and more nurses were opting for tunic tops and trousers as the century drew to a close so it was almost inevitable the comfier, more functional scrub trend which was already favoured by medical staff in the US would eventually do the same in Britain.

So, while the dress remained popular the 90s welcomed more practical choice and less uniform rigidity for male and female nurses.

21st Century Nurse Uniforms

Scrubs became popular with surgeons in operating theatres in the 70s.

Thanks in part to 90s American TV show ER and latterly Scrubs and Grey’s Anatomy, they’ve been gaining widespread popularity among many different healthcare professions including nursing ever since.

It’s now a uniform of choice for many nurses.

The unisex, loose tunic top and trouser combo is not only comfy to wear, it’s also a more hygienic and cheaper type of washable, light weight clothing which has slotted in nicely to a less gender-coded working environment.

The pandemic certainly cemented the recognition and popularity of scrubs and they came to symbolise NHS hero status for frontline medical staff.

Available in a rainbow of colours it allows a little style and personalisation within a role which historically adhered to a strict uniform code – although NHS uniform guidance and rules still apply of course.

One of the most significant aspects arising during the evolution of the nurse’s uniform is more freedom of choice.

Whether it’s the more traditional zip fasten dress, a tailored tunic top and trousers or scrubs, there’s being huge progress in the style, functionality and protection elements of healthcare uniforms.

At Harveys Workwear we’ve clothing NHS staff and healthcare teams up and down the country for over 70 years.

As a trusted supplier of high quality and durable healthcare uniforms we have the heritage and experience to offer a wide range of stylish and affordable workwear solutions that don’t compromise on quality or comfort.

We pride ourselves on exceptional customer service and our friendly team is available on the phone or online to take the stress out of placing an order.

And our expert embroidery service can personalise your workwear with either names or brand logos.

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