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Cutting loose: the uniform revolution

Cutting loose:  the uniform revolution

Australian army nurse Sister Fletcher in 1940. Photo: State Library of Victoria

Nurses who are brand new to the profession will be blissfully unaware of the time before scrubs.

The easy-to-wear, easy-to-clean garments that are both androgynous and democratic to boot are a relatively recent addition to nursing, according to Maree Dillon, Manager, Alfred Hospital Nurses League – Nursing Archives.

The pyjama-like scrubs would have been a godsend to nurses caring for patients in 19th century modest dress of long sleeves and full-length skirt in sombre black or grey, with a covering apron, and nun-like headwear, which harked back to the profession’s religious origins.

It was Florence Nightingale’s Crimean War service that inspired the military-style epaulettes, capes, medals and badges of uniforms from the Victorian era onwards.

Nurses of Australia – the illustrated story recalls the hospital etiquette that required nurses on probation to stand when in the presence of a doctor, allow more senior nursing staff to proceed first through doorways and speak only when spoken to by senior staff.

‘The nursing uniforms reinforced the system, as trained nurses wore a veil and a different coloured uniform from probationers, and the probationers either had different stripes on their uniform according to the year of training or wore different types of caps.’

Ms Dillon trained and did her graduate year in the late 1970s/early ‘80s at Prince Henry’s Hospital, where the uniform was a simple shift-style dress with a centre zip and variations on colour to demarcate students, registered nurses and senior nursing staff. When she started work at The Alfred Hospital in 1982, nurses were supplied with a uniform of a starched blue hospital dress with blue belt and collar, sleeves and cuffs.

‘At Prince Henry’s it was much easier for doctors and other people to identify who was a novice and who was an expert basically, by their uniform,’ Ms Dillon said. The Alfred student nurses had a distinct uniform but the uniforms of all registered nurses were the same.

‘You couldn’t really tell, if you were sat around at handover and were freshly employed, who was the novice and who was the expert – you had to find that out as you worked with them.’

The Alfred’s uniform was trickier to don, with ‘shank’ buttons that had to be laboriously attached from the hem right up to the neck and a little white cap that was attached with two bobby pins painted white. Around 2012 scrubs made their appearance in general wards, Ms Dillon said, inspired by the glamour of television shows like ER. The comfort factor ensured rapid adoption.

During World War I Australian army nurses were given an allowance for their uniform and the option of sewing their own, accounting for the variation of uniforms in photographs of the time.

The basic ward dress consisted of a grey cotton dress of blouse and skirt with a detachable starched white collar and cuffs, a starched white apron with bib front and a scarlet shoulder cape fastened at the throat with a silver Rising Sun badge. A white linen veil, black stockings and black boots or shoes completed the uniform.

Australian Army Nursing Service nurses serving in the Pacific during World War II found their ward dresses, based on a British design, ‘inappropriate for working in a tropical climate’, wrote Nell Williamson, a matron stationed in Papua New Guinea.

‘Large veils, starched collars & cuffs etc. had to be put aside,’ she recorded. ‘The climate was hot & very humid…

Issued with army boiler suits & boots later, until safari suits could be manufactured and issued.’ In 1943 Pacific nurses were issued with a broad-brimmed bush hat and tunic and slacks or one-piece boiler suit.

Some older nurses bemoan the demise of the uniform but Ms Dillon, recalling the ‘muffin top era’ of the early noughties, is just grateful that scrubs look tidy and provide decent coverage.

‘Before nurses were moving into scrubs when I left nursing in 2012, some nurses were just turning up in anything – any coloured slacks, any coloured shirt, and it was just getting way out of hand,’ she said.