Volunteer Voices: NHS Uniforms Through the 20th Century

The Fashion and Textile Museum is extremely fortunate to work with many talented volunteers. We’ve been keeping in touch with our volunteer team digitally during our closure and we’re pleased to be sharing their fabulous contributions to the Fashion and Textile Museum Blog with regular first Volunteer Voices posts.

All across the news these days are images of busy health care workers, with much discussion surrounding the level of protection their garments provide. But it was only within the last century, with its developments in hygiene, mass production and – yes – fashion, that medical clothing rose to the standards we see today.

The first attempts to standardise British medical uniforms came during the Second World War; off the battlefield nurses wore white, and on it they wore the khaki ‘British Battledress’. In either case, the international symbol of the red cross was affixed to the chest or sleeve. But it wasn’t until the founding of the National Health Service in 1948 that a true standardisation of uniform was possible – and believe it or not, haute couture got in on the act.

Norman Hartnell, British fashion designer famed for outfitting the Queen herself, designed some of the first NHS nursing uniforms. Highlighted in an episode of BBC favourite Call the Midwife, the hospital matron tells nurse Jenny Lee, “They were designed by Norman Hartnell. They’re practically couture.”

You can see some fabulous examples of these uniforms in action in the two videos below, which show a 1968 Royal London Hospital recruitment film, ‘Not so much a training…more a way of life’, from the archives of The Royal London Hospital.

The links to the fashion and textile industry don’t end there. The revolution of industrial laundering led to a shift towards sturdier fabrics and more structured styles, in order to withstand the frequent machine washes required to maintain high levels of sanitation – and to keep up with the latest fashions. The 1950s onwards saw a further shortening of skirts, slimming of waists, and by the 1980s a wider choice of stylish headwear for the discerning medical professional. An additional revolution came in the 1960s with the UK’s first male nurses, distinguished from their colleagues by a smart white high-necked jacket.

Scrubs, a loose top and trouser combo originally worn by surgeons, were a later addition to medical wear than nursing uniforms. Towards the end of the century the medical community came to realise the hygienic benefits of cheap, light, washable clothing, and as jobs became increasingly less gender-coded, the loose unisex design of scrubs gradually expanded across the sector. Today the NHS procures scrubs in an enormous variety of shapes and colours according to the role, rank and, of course, stylistic preference of its workers, from midwives to staff nurses to janitorial staff.

From the white, long-skirted outfits of wartime to the rainbow coalition of scrubs seen in modern times, medical uniforms in the UK have come a long way indeed. How do you think they will evolve in the future?

Our thanks to the author of this weeks Volunteer Voices, Emma Butler and to Head of Exhibitions, Dennis Nothdruft, for the illustrations.


We do hope you’ve enjoyed exploring the Fashion and Textile Museum online. If so, please consider making a donation, to help us continue our work during this difficult time.

Every donation will support us in showcasing contemporary fashion and textile design during our closure, and will assist us in welcoming you back to the Museum, as soon as we are able.

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