I'm going to boil a complex issue into a simpler one (isn't that what blogs are for?)
The other day, I read an article in Salon written by a person who received good health care in India for only $50. It was an article that acknowledged, yes, there are problems with health care delivery in India, but why-can't-we-in-the-U.S.-even-deliver-basic-services-as-well-as-in-India ... You know the story.
What struck me was not the article, though it was a fine-enough piece, but the accompanying photo. The photo showed an orderly hospital with austere but neatly made beds all in a row, like something out of a 1930s movie, and a nurse wearing a stiffly starched nurse's cap.
I was struck by the cap.
I never see nurses wearing caps like that. In contemporary movies or TV shows, if you see such a cap, it's a huge hint that you are entering into a character's fantasy/dream world, a time-traveling sequence or an alternative universe.
I don't know why nurses dropped the traditional cap in this country and I'm sure there were good reasons. Perhaps, as with Roman Catholic sisters losing the traditional garb, nurses were trying to be less forbidding and more accessible. Maybe the caps came to be seen as an affectation. Maybe it saved money not to use them. Maybe nurses came to find them demeaning.
However, the breakdown and dysfunction in our medical system seems to parallel the decline in professional garb among doctors and nurses. I remember my shock about 18 years ago when a doctor came to me with her stethoscope dangling on her lambswool sweater. No white coat. She looked like a civilian! Now I'm used to it as I am used to cluttered and chaotic medical establishments that look nothing like the photo with the row of stiffly made-up beds.
Does the loss of professional "uniform" have connection with the breakdown of our medical system or is it just coincidence?
Then I began to think about plain-dressing Quakers. Living in Barnesville, I see plain-dressing Quakers. At Ohio Yearly Meeting, I saw an array of long dresses, caps, and bonnets, suspenders and straw hats. It's always startling to me, exotic, like tropical birds flying in en mass for a visit.
Websites written by plain dressing Friends tell me that Quakers adopt plain dress out of leadings and that it seems natural to do so. A plain dressing Friend told me it's easier, that it makes life simpler, to wear plain dress. I have also heard that people do it as a witness, to visibly set themselves apart from a wider secular culture that seems to have gone awry. My surmise is, that to those who are led to it, plain dressing becomes a reminder both to them and to the world of the seriousness of their commitment to Quaker values and principles. It is the invisible made manifest. I imagine it helps Friends who dress that way stay on the high road.
I am the opposite kind of Quaker, the kind who dresses with a post-feminist simplicity. You'll seldom find me in a dress. I like clothes that are comfortable and easy to move around in, and for me that is pants. (My mother, in contrast, tried pant-suits in the early 1970s and quickly abandoned them to go back to skirts, which she found more comfortable.)
However, I am starting to wonder if some kind of clothing that marks a person out does help that person to live to a higher standard. I know it's the inward person and not the outward garb ... but I wonder if a starched cap helped a nurse take her position more seriously. Did it signal: Now you are in a different world so work to a higher standard? I don't know. I do know Catholic sisters in this country are starting to appear again in the traditional habit ... is there some degree to which the clothes make the man (or woman)? I'm also aware that I'm focusing more on women than on men, though I think the issue I'm framing has nothing to do with gender.( It's possible that gender issues of the last 40 years have caused women's dress to change more radically than men's, that I focus more on women because I am one or that I have internalized unconscious sexism, but I think this is all somewhat beside the point.) These are unformed thoughts and I'm interested in what people think.