Uniforms and personal identity in nursing

From entertainment to national security and everywhere in between, uniforms and identity have always gone hand-in-hand.

Elements like identification, differentiation, status symbols and pride are inherent to anything considered a “uniform.” Those are the fashion statements identifying, at a glance, what field a professional belongs to.

Nursing is a great example, as the iconic nursing uniform has been a universally recognized symbol of pride for nurses and nursing students over generations.

The traditional (i.e., “old school”) and now universally-recognized nursing uniform once consisted of a dress, an apron, a cap, and often a pin and cape. Slightly more modern iterations used include a tunic-style uniform as well as a simple dress.


And, as with any lab wear or healthcare-appropriate attire, nurse uniforms of yesteryear and today have played important roles in hygiene, identification, work efficiency, and safety in general.

When we talk about white lab coats in general, we speak a lot about the “symbol for scientific rigor and professionalism.” This symbolic importance has an unquestionable weight on the identity of doctors, lab workers, and other lab coat-wearers—and the same can be said about nursing uniforms.

Whatever form the nursing uniform takes today, the culture it carries and impact it delivers (and the respect it demands) all come together to represent the identity of a nurse, both on a general as well as on a personal level.

Identity, at least in the way we’ll be looking at it in this article, can be separated into two different levels of influence that can affect the way you view yourself. We’ll call these two collections internal and external identities.


Internal identity

Let’s consider internal identity as the way we perceive ourselves personally. This would be what we think of ourselves based on our own thoughts, ideas, social constructs, culture, education, etc.

And while all of these are ideas we’ve picked up, in part, from external sources, let’s only consider those that we’ve internalized. For example, imagine throwing on an article of clothing—say, a jacket—looking in the mirror, and thinking to yourself, “I look good in this!” This is a self-evaluation based on only our own thoughts, but those reactions and standards are picked up from the world around us.

What does it mean to “look good,” anyway? Right. Your definition will have something to do with what society has taught you.

At any rate, pride can certainly be a reflection of internal identity. Multiple studies have shown that students feel rewarded when differentiated correctly from discipline to discipline (i.e., not confusing nursing majors with other healthcare majors).

When someone think we’re studying something else, the blast marks on our pride are largely emotional manifestation of the respect we have for our profession or field of study.

These same studies also showed that students and healthcare workers in general prefer having a visual differentiation between the different levels of education or experience necessary to carry out certain work. That, “I’m a nurse and I’m proud of it” feeling is an internal reaction to the rigorous study and work necessary to achieve the title, and then to carry out the responsibility of working in that role.

Another generally internal factor that has major weight on our identity—and even on work and efficiency—is the self-image a uniform gives. Earning the uniform at all is certainly something to be proud of, but looking and feeling good in the uniform can have even more beneficial effects. A good self-image will promote confidence and, perhaps, assertiveness—both important traits for nurses to practice.

On the other hand, a poor self-image might promote a degree of timid behavior or an overall less effective, less motivated work ethic that ends up doing more harm to your pride with parallel slumps in performance.

And so, it’s clear, the nursing uniform plays a big role in the internal identity of the nurse wearing it, but there are even more ways the uniform can influence personal identity if we take into account external factors as well.



External identity

Moving on to things we can hear or see, the nursing uniform continues to affect one’s personal identity for a slew of reasons.

Consider that jacket from the previous example. You look good, you feel good, and you go out feeling confident. Sometimes, a single comment can turn that all around for the worse.

An unflattering comment about the color, the fit, the look, or any other part of the jacket can quickly take your confident mood and throw it into disappointment and self-consciousness, effectively kicking your positive identity and self-image down a notch with it. This external comment is what we’ll refer to as external identity—that is, how you view yourself as a direct result of an external influence or provocation.

In this way, when we talk about personal identity, these external stimuli mean it’s just as important that patients feel as good about the nursing uniforms as the nurses do. On this topic, another study found that patients in general feel better about the procedure they need to undergo or the information they receive at the hospital or clinic when their healthcare professional is wearing a uniform.

Furthermore, less traditional uniforms such as street clothes or even business attire might leave patients feeling uncomfortable. Their discomfort bouncing off you can then later manifest itself as a dented work ethic. When patients feel comfortable, nurses feel that they are doing their job well and are granted confidence to continue working to their most self-assured standard. When patients feel uncomfortable, however, they might not be as open to interact with the nurse, which can both make the job more difficult and damage the nurse’s identity and, in turn, the nurse’s confidence in his or her work.

Having patients feel comfortable plays a big part in fostering a good personal image for nurses, and it starts with a good first impression through a well-cared-for and hard-earned nursing uniform.


Uniforms are practical symbols of unity and teamwork, which is also important! Even more than that, uniforms are our means through which positive personal identities can be created and fostered, which can lead to more efficient and more motivated students and nurses.

And we’re all happy that the dated dresses and capes have gone by the wayside.