The History of Medical Scrubs

Oct 12th 2016

If you were to travel back in time to a clinic in the 1700s, it might be difficult to distinguish the medical staff from the patients. This is because the use of medical scrubs is a relatively modern idea. In fact, medical professionals did not start wearing the signature outfits until the 20th century. Instead of scrub tops and pants, nurses wore starched dresses with white aprons and caps. Doctors wore regular clothing and sometimes donned a butcher’s apron while performing surgery. The focus on sterilization and comfort revolutionized the standard uniform that medical professionals wear today.

Medical Scrub Timeline

  • Before the 19th century: Prior to the 1800s, most medical caretakers were nuns. They wore habits with aprons as they cared for the sick and injured. Nurses who worked as private caretakers during this time sometimes wore a servant’s uniform with a white cap and white apron.
  • 1860s: Florence Nightingale established a well-respected nursing school in London. One of her students designed the original nurse’s uniform, drawing inspiration from a nun’s habit. The outfits were typically long dresses with white aprons and white caps. To indicate seniority, nurses used different colors of ribbon in the cap’s band. New nurses used light-colored ribbons, while senior nurses used black ribbons.
  • 1918: The Spanish flu pandemic made medical professionals more aware of how infections spread. Doctors began wearing cotton gauze masks during surgeries to protect themselves against patient diseases.Nursing uniforms evolved around this time. Skirt lengths shortened to improve mobility. Shirtsleeves became simpler to roll up. Many nurses stopped using aprons because of their bulkiness. Military nurses started using tippets, a cape-like garment with badges that indicated the individual’s rank.
  • 1940s: Medical facilities employed more antiseptic techniques regularly to prevent the spread of pathogens and infections. These techniques included using white outfits and antiseptic drapes in the operating room to emphasize cleanliness.
  • 1950s and 1960s: Bright lights in the operating room paired with stark white operating gowns caused eyestrain in surgeons and staff. In the 1950s and ’60s, doctors and medical staff began using green-colored apparel. The color reduced eye fatigue while providing a high-contrast environment. At this time, nurse’s hats stopped denoting seniority. Their outfits were also simpler to wash and less form fitting.
  • 1970s: Nurses stopped wearing traditional caps. Male nurses wore hospital scrubs, which became a new fashion trend in the medical community. This decade set the foundation for modern medical attire, which some called “surgical greens.” The outfits became widely known as scrubs, as surgeons changed into the clothes before scrubbing in for a surgery.
  • Modern day: Almost all patient care personnel in medical facilities wear some type of scrubs. Almost all scrub tops are V-neck, short-sleeved shirts. Scrub pants generally have a drawstring. Scrubs can also include warm-up jackets with long sleeves and knit cuffs. Surgical scrubs are typically a shade of blue or green. Nonsurgical scrubs are an accepted uniform for health care staff outside the operating room. The different colors available may distinguish between departments or staff positions, depending on the facility.

The modern fits and materials in today’s scrubs allow for greater mobility and comfort. They are also simpler to clean. The medical apparel industry has evolved to include fashionable and unique designs. ScrubMed, for instance, offers services such as custom alterations and embroidery. With the variety of colors, styles and sizes available, there has never been a better time to wear scrubs.