Over the years, medical providers have always been distinguishable from other professions, particularly by the way they are dressed. Scrubs, and lab coats are among the most globally recognizable clothing for which people can instantly associate with the healthcare profession. In this sense, such apparel serves as a representation of this field of occupation. Representation is defined as a description or portrayal of someone in a particular way or as being of a certain nature. Since the birth of healing practices, strict dress codes were explicitly required as a means to separate healthcare providers from commoners and patients. However, as fashion prevailed, healthcare providers began to feel the need to be represented more as an individual rather than as a workforce by adding fashion accessories, though the issue remains controversial.
History and research has shown that the practice of medicine traces as far back as the prehistoric era. Up until the 19th century, those in the surgical field did not feel the need for uniforms and wore natural materials and civilian clothes; however, it became a nuisance to have clothes persistently stained by multifarious bodily fluids from various procedures. Hence in the 1940s, surgical uniforms known as scrubs were introduced in a standard white color and were collectively worn by the medical staff. The color white was chosen to symbolize a source of clear, faithful, and pure goodness and as a safe environment, though more colors were introduced later to differentiate between the numerous departments of healthcare.
On the other hand, the first nurse’s uniform was derived from a nun’s habit in order to be as closely represented to a nun as possible since they provided nursing care to those who were sick and injured in the 19th century. However, because of newly established nursing schools, trained nurses ultimately wanted to appear more professional and knowledgeable than those who were not by wearing the first recognizable nurse’s uniform. Similar to surgical scrubs, nurse’s uniforms, also known as scrubs, have been refined to better a nurse’s efficiency, comfort, and cleanliness, which in return improved patient care. “Wearing clothes is social in that what people wear is treated by those around them as being some sort of indicator of who they are” (Dant p 382). Thus, patients usually feel a sense of reassurance and of safety and health improvement once they spot scrubs because these discernible uniforms are representative of high functionality, efficient healing, and protection offered by a healthcare provider.
Hospitals worldwide and even medical/nursing schools have made regulations on dress codes and physical appearances. NYU’s College of Nursing epitomizes such a regulator as students are only allowed to wear scrubs, white shoes and white shirts with hairs tied up, no jewelry except watches, and no nail polish. They say that the purpose of a dress code is not to inhibit personal freedom and individuality but rather to acknowledge the unique role that healthcare providers have in-patient care and to exemplify a professional and germ-free appearance to patients and families. It is obvious that NYU along with hospitals and other schools agree with Fred Davis in “that the clothes we wear make a statement…” (148). We in the healthcare profession agree as well, however in a fashion sense.
The nineteenth century was an era of many advances, including medical, economical and social. “Life in the nineteenth century was more sharply than before divided between working hours, repaid in wages, and ‘leisure’ during which wages could be spent” (Wilson 144). Such a lifestyle perpetuated the dividing of social class into a higher and lower, based on Thorstein Veblen’s theory of conspicuous consumption, defined as the ostentatious display of monetary expenditures on goods. According to Veblen, wealth and class are not only symbolized by the abundance of leisure time in shopping and consuming, but also by the consumption of impractical and meaningless possessions in addition to the necessities of life. More and more, I see healthcare professionals, whose professions are among the top paid, with not only luxurious tools, such as stethoscopes for medical use and Iphones for both communication and medical use, but also with brand named fashion accessories. Fashion accessories such as bags, earrings, necklaces, scarves, rings, etc., have been more common, especially among female healthcare professionals as a way to demonstration their ability to consume and their wealth. It is evident that these expenditures are to suggest that healthcare experts are not to be wrongly recognized as a lower class whose wages barely covers necessities and yet continues to indulge in such leisure activity in order to “keep up with higher class consumption” (Young) and with “standard of decency” (Veblen P 63), but rather as a representation of their hierarchy in economic status.
Despite being able to identify with a higher economic class, healthcare experts “recognized ugliness of [their] own apparel” (Wilson p 134) and yearn to have the freedom to express their individuality in an environment saturated with individuals in corresponding outfits without disrupting the original purpose of scrub outfits. Because of a strict and enforced dress code, those in the healthcare thought to add exclusive fashion accessories, including but not limited to religious bangles and crucifixes, wedding bands, and honorable pins, for which their worth and meaning are “unrecognizable to casual observers and only identifiable only to those in the know” (Han, Nunes, Drèze p15). While the display of scrubs provides a depiction of the hypothetical image of a hospital and its staff, the integration of fashion accessories is a depiction of the personal freedom, story and individuality and therefore represents a form of identity of an individual in a clinical setting.
Medical uniforms have become an image of the medical field for as long as we can remember. Despite being one of the only professions that mandates uniforms, it is comforting to know that even in this field of profession, fashion has not been annihilated but rather has the potential to evolve and be shaped, thanks to media and television. In this society filled with ever changing fashion and style, it is no wonder that healthcare professionals chose to spice up their humdrum scrubs and lab coats with fashion accessories and alterations in their uniforms in order to keep up with modernity without transgressing from the dress code. By doing so, it represents personality in a crowd of similar people, yet preserving scrubs’ original representation of the cleanliness, freshness, safety, reassurance and goodness. Despite knowing the increased risk of possibly transmitting a microorganism, I can say even I am a victim of such crime by wearing pearl studs and rings at clinical sites. Lets face it – though healthcare providers such as myself know better, who doesn’t want to be known as the fashionista and stand out from the crowd.