Nurses have been a cornerstone of the NHS since its conception, working tirelessly to take care of your aunt and your brother and you and I since 1948. Like any septuagenarian the NHS has experienced a great deal of change over its 7 decades. And the case is no different for its staff. However, amongst the many seismic changes that our national health service has undertaken during its lifetime, a look at staff uniforms highlights how neglected this integral part of life for nurses has become. What once was modern and practical has been allowed to fall behind the times. Lack of innovation enabling uniforms to become out-dated and inefficient, acting as a sad reflection of the NHS itself.
While the path of a nurse is now unrecognisable from that of their 1940s counterparts, their uniform has witnessed very little real change. Where once nurses were free to enter their profession fresh from the school gates, a degree is now a prerequisite for those with hopes of becoming a nurse. As a result, our nurses are now beginning their careers ladened with thousands of pounds worth of debt, as if the stress of saving human lives weren’t already heavy enough on their shoulders. Over-worked and under stress like never before, uniforms are perhaps among the last of these nurses’ concerns. However, the NHS staff clothing must be recognised as a reflection of the NHS itself, its steady deterioration foreshadowing the institution’s similar demise.
Back in 1948, the NHS emerged from Aneurin Bevan’s proposals bright eyed and bushy tailed, as did its staff. Kitted out in a new uniform fit for a revolutionary health service, the still traditionally all-female force wore their blue skater dresses with pride. The outfit’s accessories reflected the attention to detail afforded to the uniform’s design; hats, sleeve detailing and waist-clinching aprons all a nod to the trends of the time. Although these original NHS nurse uniforms would not serve a nurse of 2018 well, the designs’ relevance and practicality for their time should not be overlooked.
Step forward a decade, and as the NHS approached its 10th birthday uniforms had already seen a small amount of change. Slight adaptations to existing uniforms occurred in-line with contemporary trends, proving that the designs continued to take modern style into consideration. As the number of male nurses continued to gradually climb post WWII, there was a natural call for an alternate uniform. The all-white-everything ‘male’ look of the 1960s appeared almost avant-garde. The simplicity of the design appearing both utilitarian and modern and aptly reflecting the stylish nature of the decade. Meanwhile, the dress option followed suit, ditching the 50s-style traditionally feminine silhouette in favour a more linear structure. Gone was the now outdated apron, replaced with clean lines and simple cuts.
As the NHS entered the 1970s the biggest change in staff dress was the removal of the hat. Waving goodbye to this no longer relevant accessory successfully demonstrated the NHS’s efforts to keep their finger on the pulse (pun intended) when it came to modern life. It wasn’t until the 80s however when hemlines were finally raised. Nurses’ uniforms’ late arrival to the calf party was perhaps the first warning sign that the NHS was falling behind the times, as women of Britain had already been opting for a shorter skirt for almost 20 years.
It was years until nurses’ uniforms experienced any more innovation. The next real change came in the form of the darkening of nurse’s uniforms, a sensible progression validating the designs’ awareness of nurses’ needs. But since then, nurses’ uniforms have failed to be updated in any significant way. Trousers were introduced for female staff, which in itself served simply as a reminder of how worryingly behind the times the NHS was falling, as this should have been introduced decades before. This belated effort to modernise turned out to be futile as an overwhelming proportion of female nurses still opt to wear staff dresses, remarking that the trousers are uncomfortable.
In 2016 it was reported that still only 11.4% of the nursing population was male, meaning that by failing to provide comfortable trousers for female nurses the NHS are failing to offer real options for almost 90% of their staff. Basic comfort levels are a key requirement for anyone undertaking a 12hour shift and the disregard of this is another reflection of the dismal state of the national health service. So, female nurses are left to wear the uniform dress, but how does this serve the modern woman? The response from nurses is worryingly negative. A midwife friend even described to me how her work clothes made her feel like Mrs Doubtfire. While Robin Williams is iconic, a style icon he is not.
Of course, this is a work uniform, it is not designed simply for aesthetic purposes and it will never be something that a nurse chooses to wear to the pub with their mates (unless maybe that’s your thing). However, past designs have proved that it is possible to create a practical outfit in which a nurse can feel happy. Or at least one which doesn’t make them feel like Mrs Doubtfire. Air hostess uniforms make a strong argument for the possibility of work wear which simultaneously considers efficiency and style. But while the ever-expanding airline industry has continued to keep its uniforms relevant, NHS uniforms have taken a downturn with the institution itself following suit. So, although it may seem an irrelevant issue considering the scale of the problems faced by the NHS, maybe the first sign of a brighter future for our beloved NHS could be a reformed uniform for its tireless staff.