The nurse’s uniform is a universal code for professionalism, decorum, efficiency, esprit de corps, and commitment to humanitarian values. Originally introduced to distinguish the untrained traditional nurse, who dressed in the everyday women’s wear of her class, from the trained and licensed modern nurse, clad in a neat, clean, and well-fitting uniform, it was a synthesis of various influences—the parlor maid, the religious sister, and military apparel. It varied in time and place, but in every case it helped forge a common occupational and gender identity. Functioning as a sign of authority and institutional discipline for patients and lower-ranking employees, the nurse’s uniform also signified service and subordination to doctors, who were usually men and not required to wear uniforms.
In the 1940s and ’50s, the Helene Fuld Health Foundation, dedicated to the “relief of poverty, suffering, sickness and distress,” focused many of its activities on nursing and produced this set of glossy photographs of nurse uniforms, each representing a nation or region, from Afghanistan to Zanzibar. The costumes differ in detail—the cuffs, capes, hats, aprons, and collars vary—yet all are recognizable as nurses’ outfits. The starched whiteness signifies commitment to hygienic cleanliness, the apron a commitment to service, and so on. Noble traits, universal values.
In 1950 the United Nations and World Health Organization were new and hopeful institutions; internationalism was rising. After the terrible war that had just been fought, a new global order seemed to be emerging. The Fuld Foundation surely intended these photographs to contribute to that order, to promote a utopian ideal of global harmony.
At the same time the photos have the look of advertisements. In the mid-twentieth century companies began manufacturing more smartly tailored uniforms, and they used women with modern hairdos and makeup who projected a sense of female independence and self-assurance to model them. Fussy styling and accessorizing was avoided; uniform design was meant only to echo the latest fashions while maintaining the modesty of the nurse.
Today, in some settings, nurses and doctors are scarcely distinguishable: both don scrubs. But the nurse’s uniform still represents authority over the patient and continues to be an iconic symbol.