Nursing Uniforms Then and Now

Nursing as a profession, has one of the most recognised uniforms. When using the word ‘Nurse’ you often think of the traditional white uniform, cape, hat and apron. Traditional nursing uniforms had a multitude of purposes, including identifying the hospital, rank, seniority, and promoting formality, respect, and training.

At the Royal Adelaide Hospital, standardised uniforms didn’t start until 1889, when Matron Thackthwaite, a graduate of the London Hospital, introduced strict uniform standards.

Probationer or Trainee Nurse

Originally, Adelaide Hospital trainee nurses had to complete a three-month probationary period before being accepted for further training and employment. During this time, the probationers wore a plain black dress and were commonly referred to as “Black Pros”. This name eventually became synonymous with trainee nurses at the Adelaide Hospital.

Once accepted as a probationer nurse, the Adelaide Hospital adopted a pink and white check material for student nurses’ uniforms. Although the length and style of the uniform evolved over time, the colour remained consistent. The completed uniform included a blue cape, cone hat, black stockings and shoes.

Staff Nurse

After graduating, the newly qualified nurse would wear a Staff Nurse uniform. This was of blue and white check material, in a similar style to the student nurse uniform. Once they became a Staff Nurse, they were permitted to wear a red cape showcasing the RAH Badge embroidered onto the front. Additionally, they would wear a ‘coal scuttle’ hat, white stockings, and shoes to complete their uniform.

Charge Nurse, Sister or Registered Nurse

The Charge Nurse uniform was a long-sleeved coat dress made of fawn ‘holland’ fabric. It was affectionately known as ‘fawns’. The uniform also included a red cape, ‘coal scuttle’ hat, and white shoes and stockings. In the 1970s, Sisters transitioned into all-white uniforms, the same as the Senior Nurses.

Matron and Senior Nurses

The matron and senior nursing staff wore white uniforms, with white shoes and stockings. Only the Matron of the Royal Adelaide Hospital wore a veil.

1970’s Onward

In 1965, male nurses were introduced at the Royal Adelaide. This brought about a shift towards more practical and gender-neutral uniforms. The newer designs featured shorter dresses that were easier to clean. Starched collars and cuffs were no longer in use, and hats and capes were replaced with more comfortable windcheaters and blazers. After the 1990s, senior nursing staff began to wear personal business attire instead of uniforms.

The nursing uniform has evolved significantly over time, culminating in what is now known as scrubs. Nurses started wearing scrubs in the 1990s, irrespective of their hospital or department. Scrubs have been proven to be more comfortable, easier to clean, practical, and less costly than their predecessors.

Written by Margot Way, CALHN Health Museum