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The History and Relevance of the Nursing Cap

When the image of a nurse is summoned from memory, many conjure the mental picture of the proper lady in the starched white dress and the famous white cap. Why this image is the prominent one in most minds is a mystery since the nursing uniform and gender has changed enormously in recent years. Today nurses are as likely to be a male as a female, and they have traded in the white formal uniform and cap for colorful scrubs. However it wasn’t always that way. The first item to change was the cap.

The nurse cap is distinctive in both purpose and style. Its lineage is as long as that of the bridal veil, which, at one time, symbolized women’s obedience and humility. For the nurse, the cap was a symbol of service to humankind. (University of Iowa). In fact it is uncertain when the nursing cap originated. It is at least several centuries old. Nursing in the United States was widely instituted as a profession during the Civil War where the nursing cap was as much a part of the uniform as the cape.

In the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, it was the Victorian Era and women wore their hair very long. The cap was used then for covering the hair for sanitary purposes. These caps covered the whole head and were considered to be unbecoming. (University of Iowa). During the nineteen twenties, the hat was revamped to just cover the top of the head. Most caps were starched and bobby pinned to the hair. The black band on the nursing cap indicated the seniority of the nurse.

The uniqueness of each universities cap enabled one to identify where the nurse received her training. You used to be able to tell exactly where a nurse was educated by looking at the design of her hat. ( Zajak). In fact the cap played such an enormous role in the identity of the nursing school that the practice of a capping ceremony took great prominence. It was during this ceremony that a nurse in training would receive her first nurse’s cap. It was a proud moment in the career of a woman who desired to dedicate her life to serving the needs of others.

After World War II, the strict dress codes of the nurse began to be questioned. It wasn’t until the nineteen seventies that the nursing cap saw its final death knell. By this decade, many men had decided that they wanted to be a part of the medical profession, but they did not want to spend as many years in school that it took to become a doctor. They soon realized that there was an enormous need for nurses. They saw no reason that they could not fill part of that need. The nursing cap was not designed to fit the male uniform.

Many nurses argued that other health-care professionals did not depend on uniforms for their authority. (Hat Lore). So gone are the days of the stereotypical nurse in her uniform with the winged cap which displayed her pride in the school where she was trained. The cap is now most likely found in a nursing museum. It is a relic from the past that will not see itself revived. This shows the world that nursing, like many other professions have changed and taken a giant step into the modern world. Professions are now genderless, and uniforms have now changed to insure safety and comfort.However, the memory of the nursing cap still lingers.


University of Iowa Medical Museum. Nursing Garb. Retrieved May 21, 2007 from http://www. uihealthcare. com/depts/medmuseum/galleryexhibits/collectingfrompast/nursing/nursing. html. Zajak, J. Preserving Nursing’s History. Retrieved May 21, 2007 from http://researchmag. asu. edu/stories/nursemuseum. html. Hat Lore. The Nurse’s Cap: Symbol of Authority or Servitude? Retrieved May 21, 2007 from http://www. civilization. ca/hist/hats/sp19eng. html.

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