Friday, September 4, 2009

Plain dressing Quakers and Nurse's Uniforms

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.


Timothy Travis said...

Thanks for this post.

I commented on it but it got to be too long to be a comment

it's at

Thanks again

Friendly Mama said...

I don't know about the nurses you know but the nurses in my life are among the hardest working and professional people I've ever known. I can't think of a group of people who take their jobs more seriously, silly scrubs or starched hats aside. I can't see how putting nurses back into hats and anachronistic uniforms (which were, in part, used to display their gender and signal their status as subservient to the authoritative doctors) could possibly change the health care system when it's certainly not the nurses who are raking in the proceeds.

I do think that what clothing represents to us can be a powerful tool for spiritual awareness. I have found that when I spend too much time thinking about what to wear I'm needing to step back and let go of ego to center myself and get in closer touch with that of God in me.
Mary Linda

MJ said...

I dress moderately plain. Always a long denim skirt and brown or gray top or a handmade dress of simple calico cottons. When it gets brutally cold, I do admit to wearing jeans, but I'm only human.

This is my witness, this is my daily reminder of my faith, my Inner Light, my "Let my life Speak", so to speak. It starts conversations, opens peoples minds, and many times creates interest in our Quaker ways.

I used to spend time, money (wastefully so) and this eliminates it. I am serious about my plain dress, this is my leading, this is my uniform, and it feels oh, so good!

Anonymous said...

Good questions, thanks for posting them.

When I first saw the link to this post, I thought another friend of mine had started a blog, because she had recently mentioned some of the things you are writing about, such as the purpose of plain dress, externalities, uniforms and community identification.

To everything there is a season, yes? Have we moved out of lock-step uniforms far enough to begin to see some benefit of outward nonverbal identification?

I see this as something the Lord must lead us in. I would be really hesitant to see there was an external push for uniforms. If this is something the Lord wants, then each of us listening, and checking in with our trusted elders, will know the answer.

Dalesgirl said...

I believe one of the reasons nurses stopped wearing hats (at least in the UK) was that it was believed to contribute to shoulder tension and back problems as they altered the way they moved.

I feel called for plain dressing but don't know where it will take me. I recently stopped wearing my engagement ring cos I felt it was too 'garish' a small step but significant.

Diane said...

Thanks for the responses. I too know many nurses and know how hard they work and how dedicated they are. I also know they worry about feeling pressured and about not being able to provide the right care to patients in this crazy medical environment. I hope I didn't come across as criticizing nurses--I was writing in a "raw" way and wondering more if nurses get ground up in a system gone awry than meaning to blame them for it. Heavens no!!

Tom Smith said...

I am unclear as to the function of uniform dress as being distinctive in any particular group. I respect individual leadings to wear specific clothing, but being distinctive can also form misconstrued separation.

I remember some distinction between the Amish and Quaker choice of dress into the 20th century being based on "in the world but not of the world." The Amish seemed to tend toward being NOT of the world while Quakers tended to be IN the world. This underlying tendency of in the world certainly seems to have led some Friends to become very much like neighboring Protestant churches, but it also led others to establish AFSC, FCNL, and other social interactions to maintain a witness to Jesus' commandments with regard to Love your neighbor.

I also have a concern for the use of Titles among Friends. Rev., Dr., Mr., etc. having become used as a distinction among some Friends. Maybe I need to write my own blog on that topic.

Thanks Diane, for raising an issue that is being discussed with regard to uniformity. I much prefer to concentrate on Unity but it is clear that uniformity is a concern among many varieties of Friends today.

Jason Minnix said...

I appreciate the attentiveness to this. The past couple years I've tried to only buy second-hand clothes.(underware and socks being the exceptions) So my spirituality is expressed externally in a less obvious way. It's been my way of lessening my ecological footprint and subverting corporations that exploit the earth and people.

I'm all for plain garb as long as it's locally grown, hand-made and anything else conscientientious that you'd like to tack onto that. Otherwise for me it's a bit of an empty symbol.

Anonymous said...

I'd be grateful for some kind of obvious distinction in hospital dress, purely so I know who to approach for what purpose. When my aunt was in hospital, we didn't know if the person we asked for help in turning her was an auxillary nurse, a ward sister, or a cleaner. Turned out she was a cleaner, and because NHS hospitals were forced by the Conservatives to outsource cleaning back in the 80s, this woman had no idea who we should ask - she was only there for the day. I assume that there must be a certain confusion amongst staff in large hospitals. In the hospice, it was different: while everyone wore scrubs, they used the old colour system, so we knew straight away who to ask for what.

I can't tell you how many times I've been in large shops and not been able to identify a sales assistant because they often no longer wear a uniform. It was mortifying to approach a a clean cut, well turned out young man in highly polished shoes, crisp shirt and tie because he did not look like a shopper but like someone actually working with the public, then realise he was a shopper, and then overhear him telling a friend that some middle class woman had assumed he was staff because he was black. I wanted to say, "No! It was because you looked like you were at work, and everyone else here is scruffy!"

So I'm all for distinctiveness of dress when it's for the purpose of helping people navigate the system and know who to go to. When the uniform itself becomes more important than what it stands for, or when it's used to enforce group-think and manipulate people, it's a big problem. I don't know how you separate out the two in large organisations.

For myself, I'm struggling towards a small wardrobe of good quality clothing that will last me for years, rather than the hodge-podge of clothes I currently own. It would be very helpful to me in terms of organisation and embodying a simple and authentic approach to life.

Anonymous said...

Hi Diane,
This is an interesting post and I've enjoyed all the thoughtful responses. I am a nurse and I can tell you why nurses in this country stopped wearing caps. It was for infection control; apparently the caps got very dirty. Also a registered nurse does a lot more physical, hands-on work now than a generation ago. My mother in law was a RN for 40 years and never once touched a bedpan. I've been an RN for 20 years and that has certainly not been my experience.
I did get a cap upon graduation. When I worked at a nursing home, if I had to work a holiday, I would wear my cap and pin with a starchy white dress, white stockings and leather shoes to please the elderly patients. They were estatic to see their nurse "looking like a proper nurse". It got to be a bit tiresome, and sad, when they would beg me to "dress up" for them everyday.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Very interesting post.

I was raised Mennonite, but the women dressed only slightly different than the rest, and now not different at all. But there are Mennonites in that area whose women wear the dresses and caps all the time, and at least when I was younger, the men and boys never have a short sleeve shirt.

Yes and no. I think simplicity is good. But uniformity I'm not so sure.

Should clothes call attention to us, and why or why not?

I've known joyful Christians who had anything but a dead, legalistic spirit, in all the "dress." But there is the danger I think, that conformity to the church's rule is where the focus will be, rather than conformity to Christ, I'm afraid.


Liked the post...One of my friend suggested me about , Their uniforms are perfect for nurses, doctors, dental hygienist or medical student, they have the perfect scrubs for you. They make it easy to find the medical equipment that you need for your profession. When you buy from Career Uniforms you can buy with confidence.

Unknown said...

I wore a cap in nursing school (mid-70's) but not much longer. Caps made working with hanging bags and tubing (IV's) more difficult, as the cap was always banging into the equipment and falling off, including into the patient's bed. Caps originated when nursing involved less technical activities. I loved them, too, but they are impractical.

Anonymous said...

I am a Quaker and a nurse. The white hats were ousted to make the field more approachable by men would like to nurses.

Anonymous said...

Caps... completely impractical in Nursing today! Why? Infection control is the number one reason. Nothing should be worn in and out of hospitals today without washing, preferably bleaching! Too many antibiotic-resistant bacterias. Trust me, I'm a nurse :-)

Jenna said...

As a sometimes Plain dressing woman, I do know for certain that I behave differently in my Plain dresses. More reverent, perhaps, of both G-- and people. When I was growing up you dressed to be seen. Now you dress to be comfortable. A drastic difference in emphasis, no?

Alun said...

Very interesting discussion. I've got contradictory thoughts about Plain dressing.

I fully understand the desire to dress in an ego-less way that harms the planet as little as possible. On the other hand I've always quite liked people bold enough to dress in an interesting or colourful way and feel they add to the beautiful diversity of God's creation. I'm also aware that some people who dress in an unmindful downbeat way are doing so out of low self-esteem.

It sounds as if there can be different, possibly opposite, motivations behind dressing Plain. For some it seems to be a desire to stand out and give external witness to their spirituality, for others a desire to be modest and not stand out. In the latter sense, dressing Plain may be best done by dressing in an understated version of whatever the current norm is.

The important thing is that people should dress as they wish and not feel anything is being imposed on them, either by wider society or by their religion. As I used to say when I was manager of a community mental health team and people asked what my policy was on clothing, "I have a very strict and rigid clothing policy. It is that people must wear exactly what they want to, so long as it's clean".