May 30, 2018

Stunning Hand-Colored Images Illustrate Nurse Uniforms of All Nations in the 1950s

The nurse’s uniform is a universal code for professionalism, decorum, efficiency, esprit de corps, and commitment to humanitarian values. Originally introduced to distinguish the untrained traditional nurse, who dressed in the everyday women’s wear of her class, from the trained and licensed modern nurse, clad in a neat, clean, and well-fitting uniform, it was a synthesis of various influences—the parlor maid, the religious sister, and military apparel. It varied in time and place, but in every case it helped forge a common occupational and gender identity. Functioning as a sign of authority and institutional discipline for patients and lower-ranking employees, the nurse’s uniform also signified service and subordination to doctors, who were usually men and not required to wear uniforms.

In the 1940s and ’50s, the Helene Fuld Health Foundation, dedicated to the “relief of poverty, suffering, sickness and distress,” focused many of its activities on nursing and produced this set of glossy photographs of nurse uniforms, each representing a nation or region, from Afghanistan to Zanzibar. The costumes differ in detail—the cuffs, capes, hats, aprons, and collars vary—yet all are recognizable as nurses’ outfits. The starched whiteness signifies commitment to hygienic cleanliness, the apron a commitment to service, and so on. Noble traits, universal values.


In 1950 the United Nations and World Health Organization were new and hopeful institutions; internationalism was rising. After the terrible war that had just been fought, a new global order seemed to be emerging. The Fuld Foundation surely intended these photographs to contribute to that order, to promote a utopian ideal of global harmony.

At the same time the photos have the look of advertisements. In the mid-twentieth century companies began manufacturing more smartly tailored uniforms, and they used women with modern hairdos and makeup who projected a sense of female independence and self-assurance to model them. Fussy styling and accessorizing was avoided; uniform design was meant only to echo the latest fashions while maintaining the modesty of the nurse.

Today, in some settings, nurses and doctors are scarcely distinguishable: both don scrubs. But the nurse’s uniform still represents authority over the patient and continues to be an iconic symbol.

Nurse wearing uniform from Hong Kong

Nurse wearing uniform from Kenya

Nurse wearing uniform from Denmark

Nurse wearing uniform from Philippines

Nurse wearing uniform from British Honduras

Nurse wearing uniform from Nepal

Nurse wearing uniform from Madeira

Nurse wearing uniform from Colombia

Nurse wearing uniform from Germany

Nurse wearing uniform from Dominican Republic

Nurse wearing uniform from Bolivia

Nurse wearing uniform from Northern Ireland

Nurse wearing uniform from Yugoslavia

Nurse wearing uniform from France

Nurse wearing uniform from British Guiana

Nurse wearing uniform from Peru

Nurse wearing uniform from Japan

Nurse wearing uniform from Bahamas

Nurse wearing uniform from Ceylon

Nurse wearing uniform from Thailand

Nurse wearing uniform from Israel

Nurse wearing uniform from Germany

Nurse wearing uniform from Manitoba

Nurse wearing uniform from Uganda

Nurse wearing uniform from Italy

Nurse wearing uniform from England

Nurse wearing uniform from Luxembourg

Nurse wearing uniform from Uganda

Nurse wearing uniform from Ecuador

Nurse wearing uniform from China

Nurse wearing uniform from Nigeria

Nurse wearing uniform from Egypt

Nurse wearing uniform from Malaya

Nurse wearing uniform from Morocco

Nurse wearing uniform from Austria

Nurse wearing uniform from Greece

Nurse wearing uniform from Rhodesia

Nurse wearing uniform from South Africa

Nurse wearing uniform from Finland

Nurse wearing uniform from Belgium

(Images: Helene Fuld Health Foundation, via Circulating Now from NLM)




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