Most medical dramas highlight the the egos, personalities, and life-saving talents of surgeons and doctors. But the BBC’s sleeper hit “Call the Midwife”–based on the best-selling memoirs of the late Jennifer Worth–puts the focus squarely on a group of skilled nurses specializing in obstetrics. Set in London’s East End in the late ’50s, this series follows Jenny, Chummy, Trixie, Cynthia and Patsy as they help bring safe childbirth to women in the desperately poor Poplar district, and look after their numerous newborns.
A quick glimpse at our main characters shows us that they were expected to wear somewhat awkward and dowdy uniforms while they worked at Nonnatus House: Starched blue shirt dresses with stiff-looking Peter Pan collars, white pinafores and caps, with burgundy cardigans for warmth. Of course, a quick look at the London Hospital uniform that Jenny dons in Season 2 Episode 3 illustrates how showy nursing attire could get. As the hospital matron tells Jenny, “They were designed by Norman Hartnell. They’re practically couture.”
Uniforms have long been employed to convey authority, expertise and trustworthiness among many professionals. Consistency of dress puts the public at ease, implying that the person at hand is wearing the garb of her or his trade because she or he has studied, trained and mastered certain skills. Nurses have worn uniforms for centuries both for purposes of identification in hospitals and on battlefields, and in attempts to create sanitary conditions. Though, as you’ll see, those attempts were often misguided.
For instance, the nursing uniforms from the late 1800s through World War I were modeled after nun’s habits with full sleeves and long, “fever-proof” skirts intended to shield the nurse from infection. Since gloves and masks were absent, the uniforms themselves did little to protect their wearers. Caps were also worn purportedly for sanitary reasons, but mainly served to identify nurses to sick patients and busy doctors. In fact nurse caps were designed in varying shapes and styles, with many hospitals and nursing schools creating their own signature caps to identify their particular staff and students.
By World War II, we began to see shorter hemlines and sleeves especially in England. Although this made nursing uniforms less bulky and more utilitarian, the changes were made mainly due to clothing material shortages. Many nurses still wore caps, pinafores, and dresses, but some American military nurses wore uniforms that were almost identical to those of the soldiers. This kept costs low, regardless of where personnel were assigned or what duties they performed. By this time, gloves and masks were almost universally employed to protect nurses and patients alike.
From the 1950s through the 1970s, huge changes and improvements were made. Although the earlier decades still saw nurses like Jenny Lee and her colleagues in dresses and pinafores, skirts became shorter and slimmer as fashions changed in the world outside the hospital. And eventually, dresses fell out of favor altogether. Uniform pants—which were once worn only on the battlefield—became part of duty uniforms in many medical facilities around 1978.
Modern nurses have shifted to scrubs: These lightweight, washable top-and-pant sets are comfortable, practical, and still uniform enough to identify their wearers as expert medical personnel. Another huge change? In the present day, nurses, aides and doctors are differentiated by accessories and name tags only.
Doctors still run the show in many respects, but nurses are no longer visually and professionally sidelined.
Present day nurses still defer to doctors on many matters, but this homogenization of dress signals a cultural shift. Although nurses have done back-breaking and life-threatening work for hundreds of years, until very recently they were viewed and treated as relatively unskilled underlings by their medical colleagues. Historically, nursing has been a female-dominated profession and having female nurses wear uncomfortable, impractical, and ornamental clothing served as an effective and unspoken means of reminding them of their place within the hierarchy.
Today, surgeons and RNs don the same uniform, a set of clothes that merely says, “I am a medical expert.” Doctors still run the show in many respects, but nurses are no longer visually and professionally sidelined. And although the nurses in “Call the Midwife” wear period-appropriate uniforms, the existence and success of a series that puts the spotlight on midwives shows we’ve come a long way in our views of nurses and their work.
Watch “Call the Midwife” online at PBS.org or check your local PBS station’s schedule for broadcast dates and times.