Does it really matter what nurses look like? I remember all of the old battles fought about nurses’ uniforms and how radically progressive we all thought we were being in deriding them as some kind of arcane symbols of oppression. What could be more egalitarian and practical we thought than for all hospital nurses to wander about in identically colored trouser suits or scrubs. The hospital equivalent of a shell suit.

What struck me so clearly on my recent visits to both Yeovil and Brighton Trusts was the rediscovery of the power, pride and symbolic value of the nurse’s uniform. When Brighton Chief Nurse Sherree Fagge met me at the hospital she wore the senior nurses’ uniform. It was a rich purple, the colour of power and passion. At Yeovil Trust, Director of Nursing Sue Jones and the senior nursing staff had similarly identifiable uniforms. Not only did they have uniforms but, horror of horrors, staff wore their hospital badges and an infected sky did not fall.

Were these nurses reverting to handmaiden status? Were they somehow setting nursing’s clock back 30 or 40 years? Were they sartorially signalling subservience to their colleagues in the trust’s executive? Not in a million years. This was more a rediscovery that professional appearance has both a practical and symbolic importance. These uniforms were an acknowledgement and visible statement about the place, power and presence of nursing in the organisation. Interesting that Wales has gone for a national nurses uniform for NHS hospital staff http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/wales/8036372.stm citing similar advantages in easy recognition and understanding for patients and relatives and boosting professional pride.

Now I absolutely get it that nurses’ uniforms are not appropriate in all settings or for all nurses, but it struck me that this reclaiming of a hospital’s senior nurses’ uniform was nothing to do with ‘going back’ to some starchy, Hattie Jaques stereotype, but everything to do with the importance of symbols, appearance and perception. And if you think that appearance and perception are unimportant, I have only two words for you: Gordon and Brown.

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