When did nurses start wearing a uniform? What inspired their look? Have you ever wondered how the uniform for nurses developed? Okay, not many people have — but hopefully this post will pique your curiosity now!
Before nurses starting wearing scrubs in the 1980s, the uniform that began in the mid-1860s was relatively unchanged until about the 1940s.
Duyckinick, Evert A. Portrait Gallery of Eminent Men and Women in Europe and America. New York: Johnson, Wilson & Company, 1873. [Public Domain]
Modern nursing is largely attributed to Florence Nightingale (1820-1910). She is credited for creating “modern” techniques and developing a certain look for the job. Her name sounds like something from a historic romance novel and her biography is equally worthy of a 19th century TV drama (there actually is a movie based on her life made in 1985). She was born into wealth and could have easily accepted a life of leisure, but decided to pursue an unlikely career as a nurse.
Annette Kellerman was ahead of her time for her physical abilities in the water, her belief in the need for women to maintain a healthy body, and importantly in fashion by her swimwear. She seemed to live in a different era, undeterred by the formalities and restrictions, (whether real or self-imposed) that prevented most women from doing the same. In fact, many of things she did would never have occurred to most women of the early 20th century.
Originally from Australia, Annette took her talents worldwide, breaking swimming and diving records, traveling to various theater stages in Europe and the United States, and eventually made Hollywood silent films that showcased her talents. Hollywood later revisited her incredibly life story, and Ester Williams would channel Annette in The Million Dollar Mermaid (1952).
There are several reasons why this month’s post will focus on the fascinating Inez Milholland. Not only did her efforts as part of the women’s suffrage movement inspire many, she also became a lawyer – a highly unlikely profession for a female — and was celebrated for her efforts during her lifetime as well as considered a martyr after her death! The interesting tie-in for fashion is in her stylish clothing and the change in attitude in Vogue‘s pages while covering the suffragette movement and Milholland.
In the early 1900s, thanks to a variety of social and technological factors (like the suffragette movement, dress reform, the safety bicycle, etc), it became more and more acceptable for women to take part in life outside of the home — albeit still in limited quantities and within certain parameters.
A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty by Mimi Matthews covers the course of women’s fashion and beauty changes from the 1840s through the 1890s, basically the length of Queen Victoria’s reign and influence. The book speaks to a lot of what initially drew me into researching the period of 1880-1930 in terms of the dramatic changes from restrictive, complex clothing and social customs to riding bicycles and wearing looser, linear garments without even a corset for shaping (or at least without the appearance of one).
I like the opening dichotomy of the book, “Though a young and eventually transformative queen had ascended the British throne in 1837, ordinary women of the 1840s had very little freedom of their own” (Matthews, 3). This would largely remain true throughout the reign of Queen Victoria. Women at this time anticipated that they would need assistance just to put on their clothing (which is why the closures were typically in the back) let alone doing much of anything on their own without a chaperone.