Retro Rerun: The Evolution of Canadian Nursing Uniforms

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Randip Bakshi

Nursing Costume Parade

There is an often repeated (bad) joke about a male nurse being asked whether he wears skirts just like his female counterparts. If only the jokers knew that the skirt is a recent inclusion in the the history of nursing fashion! To familiarize the public about nursing outfits the Canadian Association for the History of Nursing and the Canadian Association for the History of Medicine joined hands to hold a live fashion show at McPherson Library to showcase Canadian nursing outfits since the late nineteenth-century. Shiela Rankin-Zerr and Glennis Zilm, both professors at UBC's School of Nursing, organized the show to illustrate the diversity of nursing uniforms and their impact on women's fashion. As Glennis Zilm correctly stated: "Nurses have been at the forefront of revolutionizing women's clothing." The Maltwood Gallery was momentarily turned into a runway and faculty, students, and staff became trend-setting models, while the audience waited with quiet anticipation for the show to start. With over sixteen outfits, the show higlighted the breadth and richness of Canadian nursing costumes. To say that the women spearheading the operation were enthusiatic about their subject would be an understatement as many of the costumes came from Dr. Rankin-Zerr's personal collection. Indeed that keen interest spread amongst those seated in the audience as the ladies took to the ramp. Without further delay here's a photo-filled recap:

The First Look: Preparations in full swing!

A quick script check.

Ready to roll.

Dr. Sheila Zerr led the parade with the costume of Jeanne Mance (1650), Canada's first lay nurse. The blue full-length skirt outfit was brought to life by a gold key case that was very reminiscent of women's clothing in the early years of Canadian history.

The next model, Sandy Stone, brought to life First Nations' nursing outfits in the 1840s.

Irene Milton then channeled the spirit of Mary Cridge, a Victorian woman of influence (1850). Mary Cridge was responsible for the first hospital in Victoria (later the Royal Jubilee Hospital).

Dr. Sheryl Walsh from Vancouver Island University got the audience extra excited with her Florence Nightingale outfit (1860). Florence Nightingale, often known as the Lady of the Lamp, is the founder of modern nursing as we know it and her inclusion isn't surprising.

This was followed by a Red Cross nurse from World War I immediately transporting us younger lot to the day of Downton Abbey if not the actual war itself. The veil was clearly marked by a red cross and it is said that these were the first outfits to be introduced with a raised hemline.

The nurses awaiting their turns.

BC Public Health nurses from the 1920s and 1930s.

Victoria's Royal Jubilee Hospital's Walking Out Uniform (1905). Pay particular attention to the British style bonnet and cape. The model brought everyone to squeals of laughter when she uttered "Hallelujah" when taking off the cape and hat.

Vancouver General Hospital's Graduation Uniform (1940s).

World War II Nursing Uniform. I was informed after the show by the very lady modelling that the unifrom was in fact misrepresentative! Women nurses entered the armed forces as officers while the uniform was that of a Corporal.

Nursing Instructor in the 1970s (on the right). Interestingly the WW II nurse was her mother!

Nurses from Northern Canada it seems beat everyone else! Their costumes have a hood, fancy shoes, and a waist cinching cord. Talk about uniform perfection!

The shoes are show stealers, if you ask me.

Finally, the gender neutral scrubs.

How's this for a whirlwind tour of Canadian nursing fashions? Any favourites?