- A Cultural History of the Nurse’s Uniform by Christina Bates
Christina Bates’s comprehensive review of the nursing uniform sets a new standard for object-driven historical analysis. In many ways, this is a traditional history, organized chronologically to cover the period from 1870 to the present, with useful additional chapters on peculiarities of nursing uniforms – bibs, caps, dress-related rituals – and the history of costumes for nursing outside of the hospital. Yet, in its integration of close and careful readings of myriad objects and images, with an accessible yet theoretically driven picture of the broader contexts of nursing, labour, and gender more generally, A Cultural History of the Nurse’s Uniform is a deft and sophisticated piece of scholarship.
What is particularly laudable about the book is that Bates showcases the significant reach of analyses of dress and fashion: they can serve as a material index of broader ideologies, institutional arrangements, and social practices, illuminating the ways that they are internalized and lived by individual historical subjects. As does the best scholarship [End Page 623] on dress, Bates’s book uses the nursing uniform as a kind of hinge between individual and social, and thereby avoids the tendency to bifurcate the two or privilege one over the other. Bates illustrates, for example, how the nursing uniform functioned as both a disciplinary control on nurses and nursing students, reflecting conservative and highly class-bound norms of wholesome femininity and sexuality, and a source of “nurses’ sense of belonging and self-respect” (61). She repeatedly invokes nurses’ own words to show that they experienced their uniforms as important expressions of identity, but that they recognized and sometimes resisted the ways that the uniform was deployed by institutions to regulate their behaviour. Far from being a trivial object, the uniform allows Bates to open onto much broader questions, such that the book becomes something akin to a history of nursing in Canada, and not just the uniform alone. Indeed, this approach supplies the book’s central argument – that “for over a hundred years, the uniform created patterns of behaviour, values and identities that defined generations of nurses” (2). Bates’s approach to the uniform is to treat it as a creative agent in its own right, not merely responding to the profession, but helping to shape it.
Aside from this theoretical orientation and argumentation, one of the great strengths of this book is its detail, drawn from careful consultation of an impressively wide array of sources. Bates writes fascinating portraits of individual garments, for example, and is sometimes able to “read” an institutional climate in material cues, such as excessive darning or repairs or well-worn fabric. In addition to the archives of several hospitals – Montreal General is particularly prominent – Bates consulted ephemera such as nurses’ scrapbooks and student newspapers, conducted surveys of nursing school alumnae, and interviewed several alumnae. The result is a textured history that features an impressive weave of voices, alongside a very comprehensive mastery of the secondary literature on nursing and its history. The book is compelling, balances Bates’s analytical acumen with her gift for storytelling, and is beautifully – and abundantly – illustrated with archival photographs, pictures of surviving uniforms, and relevant ephemera, including cartoons and advertisements.
The sources lead to one important question about the book – its geographic focus. While the book aims to make generalizable claims, reflected in its title, it draws nearly exclusively on Canadian sources. Bates makes the occasional comparison with the United States or the United Kingdom, but the substantive focus is an analysis of the uniform in Canada. The failure to specify the study as a history [End Page 624] of Canadian nursing uniforms seems to result from a desire to generalize Bates’s findings. While surely there are significant corollaries between this country and the cases of the United States and the United Kingdom, not enough is included about the other contexts to make such connections meaningful. Further, Bates surely misses nuances in the development of the nursing uniform – and in nursing more generally – that...