It is likely that the uniforms in the early days of nursing (1850-1900) were based on the habits of religious orders. The clothes were designed to conform to the requirements of the times. Thus during the cholera and other epidemics the visiting nurses wore a full-length dress with a cowl, mask and possibly gloves. The colours were usually sombre and dark. Later in the century white aprons were added. The hats were dark and somewhat ornate and capes of full length were used to visit outside the hospital.
During the early 20 th. century white uniforms were commonly worn by trained nurses, though some Hospitals favoured a coloured uniform dress protected by an apron. At the Adelaide Children’s Hospital which opened in 1875 and was the first hospital to conduct a training school for nurses. The nurses wore a navy blue serge dress protected by an apron in winter, and a dress of Oxford blue in the summer.
When uniforms of this nature were introduced in the Adelaide Hospital in the 1890s blue was the colour worn by trained nurses. In most Hospitals trained nurses wore a veil (folded square of starched muslin) as a head covering. At the Adelaide Hospital a cone shaped cap was worn by trained and trainee nurses. In the 1890s streamer attached to the cap differentiated trained and trainee nurses. Early in the 20thcentury the sister’s (trained nurse’s) cap was replaced by one with a turned back brim, sometimes described as a “coal scuttle”, which was tied under the chin with a length of decorated tape.
Blue (ACH), pink ( RAH ), or mauve (QEH) uniforms distinguished trainee nurses from individual training schools. They were worn with white collar, cuffs, and an apron. Most trainee nurses wore black shoes and stockings.
In Adelaide a well-known manufacturer of nursing uniforms was the firm of Rich’s. The proprietress was Miss. Graske and with the help of Mrs. Spriggs they and their staff provided uniforms for all the teaching hospitals and some private hospitals in Adelaide . Individual hospitals negotiated separate contracts as to colour and style. Their first factory was in Tavistock (now Frome ) street.
Little changed with the RAH uniforms in hem and sleeve lengths until the mid 1950s. The late Irene Kennedy, matron from 1966-1973 suggested the lack of change was due to limited financial resources. The trained nurses changed their “fawns” for a white uniform in the 1970s and the starched collars, cuffs, and aprons were gradually phased out. The material used was Koroton, a synthetic fibre imported from interstate. The material was cut and sewn locally and in order to provide water resistance the finished uniforms were “baked” in a heated oven before distribution. As the usual means of identifying seniority disappeared with the cap, the RAH introduced a system of coloured buttons for registered nurses to assist in the identification of seniority.
Male nurses were introduced into the RAH during the 1960s. They wore the “Ben Casey” shirt and white trousers as worn by the junior medical staff but were identified by chevrons worn on the left sleeve. They too had several changes over the years.
The current nursing attire usually consists of a skirt or trousers and a colourful blouse. Nurses in specialised areas such as operating theatres or the ICU have distinct identifying colours. The current uniforms of all female nursing staff are of a much more simpler design than those of earlier years and often resemble those worn by office staff. Polyviscose is used for the skirts and trousers while the blouses are made from Polyester or Poly-cotton.