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A Nurses Uniform - A Brief History

We are very honoured here at Meltemi to directly serve and support our fantastic NHS nurses with our uniforms. For over 30 years we have made it our mission to ensure they feel comfortable and protected when providing care to our communities. At Meltemi we manufacture a large range of nursing scrubs, tunics, trousers and dresses for nurses out of quality lightweight material that is practical as well as smart. Our most basic nurse tunics and dresses still pay homage to the traditional style uniform but the technology behind our textile design has come a long way since nursing was first born. The journey of the nurses uniform has not just been sculpted by our evolving understanding of pathogens and disease but by our knowledge of textiles and their properties.

The beginning

Nursing as a profession in England was pioneered by Mary Seacole; Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War in the mid-1800s. Before them, there was no uniform.

Their courageous efforts to care for thousands of injured soldiers came with the realisation that poor hygiene and infection came hand in hand. A lack of education in those days would have most likely meant uniform was not considered an essential piece of equipment. In the early conception of healthcare there would have also been very little regulations in place to govern what nurses did or didn't do. A typical 19th century nurses uniform would have consisted of a floor length day dress paired with a pinny or waist apron. Nightingale is particularly remembered for this combination often with the addition of a bonnet type head piece most likely to keep her hair out of her eyes. She may not have been aware that this was actually a smart decision to prevent the spread of infection!

Mary Seacole is depicted similarly, often draped heavily in floor length skirts. This was not a clever design feature especially in hot environments where overcrowding was common and space was scarce. This would have no doubt been an extreme hindrance. Not to mention, the materials and textile technologies in those times would have been extremely limited, meaning these dresses would have been incredibly unforgiving in terms of stretch and breathability. Most clothes were made out of wool or cotton!

They were also predominantly black. This is because the first nurse uniforms were derived from the nun’s habit.


In medieval times the hospitals were mostly run by charitable organisations under Christian missionary Roman Catholic Churches. In order to take care of the patients catholic nuns were staffed as nurses. This is why today we still call ward Nurses sisters and why for years a nurse was considered a female profession!

Advancements of the 1900s

As nursing was catapulted into a recognised profession and we became more educated about microbiology, nurses; uniforms began to evolve.

The first official uniform was actually designed by one of Florence Nightingale's students. The main difference at this early stage was the colour and the length. Nurses were now wearing white to emphasise cleanliness and widely believed that it was used to convey an angelic sense of purity. This was essentially the beggining of modern day nurses tunics.

The hems were also heightened to skim the ankles rather than drag unhygienically across the floor. Another key advancement was the invention of nylon polymers in the 1930s. Nylon was the first commercially successful synthetic thermoplastic polymer (wiki) which in layman's terms meant large commercial manufacturers could mass produce nylon blends with desirable properties whilst keeping prices low. We could now manipulate fabric to become more elastic, durable and cooler to work in. This being said, they were still fairly impractical.

As time went on, England saw through two world wars and nearly a century of fashion trends and social movements. This saw the introduction of its first ever male nurses, nurse uniform designs improved dramatically in terms of functionality.

In the 1950s dresses and sleeves became much shorter and layers were utilized as a means to stay efficiently sanitary. I.e. Uniforms were much easier to wash. Inventions like plastic aprons and paper hats were being encouraged as disposable equipment meant less washing and less risk of contamination.

Modern day

We are at a point now where we really have grasped the science behind a functional and comfortable uniform. As an example of how far we've come, you are probably already aware that today most ward nurses; uniforms (and scrubs alike) are blue or green. Although they do differ from hospital to hospital and now can even colour code rank, there is a reason behind the colour blue.

Josephine Reid, along with other sources, claim that in contrast to white, blue is much easier to keep clean. She also said, Among other benefits, shades of surgical green as well as blue were found to reduce eye fatigue, provide a high-contrast working environment and make bloodstains less obvious. There are theories to suggest that wearing blue (mainly in a surgical context) is less stressful to the eyes because green/blue is opposite red on the colour wheel and hence can neutralise the colour of blood.

With the nursing world becoming less gendered too, it is now not obligatory to wear a dress. Many people find wearing trousers at work much more practical and comfortable, especially a role as active as a ward nurse. To further add to this, the materials themselves are now more specialised than ever. (We would know, we are the experts afterall!) The key is versatile material. The exceptional knowledge we have of fibre blending now means we can wash our uniforms at a much higher temperature meaning we kill any surface germs and control the spread of infection. We can also ensure that they have the right amount of stretch and durability to endure the fast paced environments and demanding actions of the role and still withstand a high temperature wash without reducing its lifespan.


At Meltemi we have pioneered the modernisation of healthcare staff uniforms over the past 30 years and we are exceptionally proud of it!

Especially over the past year, we have seen how nursing uniforms and PPE have played an integral part in keeping our nation and our brave nurses safe. The development of the nurses uniform has meandered somewhat slowly until the late part of 20th century but, since then, our research and passions have propelled us into a new era where uniform isn't considered an item of clothing. It is equipment that you can't do your job sufficiently without.  

We are the experts and leaders in the field. If you have any queries about any of our garments please call one of our professionals on 01603 731330. Alternatively you can browse our selection online or email for more info.