Professionalism, Patriotism, and Purity of Purpose: Symbolism and Identity in First World War Nurses’ Uniforms

Friday, January 5, 2018: 1:50 PM
Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, SC Johnson Center
Christine Hallett, University of Manchester
In the first decades of the Twentieth Century, the nursing profession still held a precarious foothold in respectable society. By the time the First World War began in 1914, nascent military nursing services in Britain and its self-governing Dominions, particularly Australia, New Zealand and Canada were already using the design of nurses’ uniforms and a means of projecting an image of a highly efficient cadre of professionals, who also had a distinctly military identity. The use of scarlet and grey materials and features such as stripes and brass-buttons, lent nurses a highly militaristic appearance. By contrast, in France, Belgium and Russia, where nursing was heavily influenced by religious values, uniforms were much more likely to resemble the habits of religious sisters, or to be carefully-tailored, slightly old-fashioned and almost entirely white, emphasising the purity and authenticity of the nurse’s purpose.

Soon after the entry of the USA into the war in April 1917, ‘base hospitals’ were deployed to the European battlefields. Their nurses were enlisted under the auspices of the American Red Cross and wore its distinctive uniform: a blue dress, with a white apron, a cap (rather than a veil) and a prominently-displayed red cross, making the point that these women were all highly-trained professionals whose work was part of a pre-existing tradition of humanitarian work .

The paper concludes that nurses’ First World War uniforms were deliberate signifiers of the aspirations and intentions of the groups they represented. Whether they wished to project a sense of professionalism, militarism, purity or altruism, nurse leaders were aware of the symbolic power of uniform and mobilised its potential in purposeful and often quite ingenious ways.