Post 9

Are you the Nurse?
Reflections on Uniforms

At my local bank I noticed that the tellers started wearing suit jackets, and it did create the impression of competence and so on.  You could tell it was a new dress code.  But then later I saw that the dress code had changed. They were all wearing fleece zippered tops with the bank logo on them. It didn’t really work as a uniform. They looked ready to break out the remote control and relax, not help me with my banking issues.  For sure, not all uniforms are equally impressive.

Nurses used to look more dignified in their white outfits with starched caps. (I was going to say that’s my opinion, but I guess in a blog that’s redundant.) Now they wear colourful versions of the surgeon’s scrubs.  Sometimes they have cute little cartoon pictures on them. It’s a free-for-all, with everyone choosing whatever colour or print they want. I guess it’s about self-expression, freedom and being down-to-earth. And it seems that almost everywhere else, structured clothing and structured uniforms are being cast out, replaced by outfits that have no independent shape; they either bunch and droop or else stay glued to the body via Lycra. And the hat, that potent little article, is banished almost everywhere, except if it’s a baseball cap.

It was neat when the roles showed through the uniforms; now it’s all a mish-mash, and when you see someone in a hospital, you can’t tell whether she’s a nurse or the unit clerk or part of the janitorial team. So you look for the context: he’s wheeling some blood-work supplies so he’s probably someone from the lab, and she’s wheeling janitorial supplies, so perhaps she’s part of the cleaning staff. She’s wheeling food, so she’s from food services, I think. Where’s the nurse? Maybe she’s at the computer; no, that’s the medical resident, I think, because when she turned, I noticed she has a stethoscope.  But sometimes nurses have stethoscopes -– okay, I give up!

The patients (and the families of the patients), who are already bewildered by the various types of people appearing suddenly at their bedside, are deprived of visual clues to know anybody’s role. (They can recognize their fellow patients, of course; they’re the ones walking around with their gown gaping open in the back.)

In an era when manners and respect are in short supply, a decent uniform could be a very useful tool. Chesterton said (through his character Mr. Burke):

“But believe me, men cannot obey that which is not dignified, or which does not believe in its own dignity. For this reason has all authority from the beginning clothed itself in trailing robes and towering head-dresses; and carried strange emblems in the hand and worn strange symbols on the head.”

— G.K. Chesterton, The Judgment of Dr. Johnston

As his quotation suggests, the uniform does have to have something to it, which is why the bank’s fleece zippered tops don’t really accomplish the same thing, nor do the nurse’s scrubs in all different colours. Those outfits are pseudo-uniforms; they’re so casual that they’ve lost their distinctness as uniforms. (As a matter of fact, I’ve now seen nurses wearing long-sleeved t-shirts, screen-printed with the name of their unit on them, and it was in the intensive care unit, which is the last place I’d expect to see such a casual look.)

But almost all the other uniforms work really well at conveying preparedness, professionalism, pride in one’s employer and occupation, dedication and dignity. I saw middle-aged men working at a gelato shop, and their uniforms, consisting of dress pants, white shirts, black bow ties and vests, added to aura of the place, and highlighted their ability in that line of work. I think the chef’s uniform is equally as dignified as the police officer’s, but I like all the other ones too: fireman, flight attendant (some countries have better ones than others), bellhop, Swiss Guard, UPS delivery person, bishop and priest, with that black cassock being the most dramatic of priestly garb, in my opinion.