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Get ahead, get a hat?


Let’s be honest, nurses need hats like giraffes need driving gloves.

At worst they are an irrelevant piece of head trivia that turn nurses into ornaments and on some occasions (in those hospitals that demanded absurdly tall architectural headwear to distinguish their staff from the rest of humanity) they have prevented nurses from passing under low bridges. At best they are a symbol of something alluding to pride and social distinction - like a priest’s collar or a rock star’s sunglasses.

I can only imagine that hats retain for some people a resonance or retro-irony of some value, or that the fashion student responsbile for them is both patronising and colour blind, and is a bit jealous of people who are doing something useful with their lives.

‘While the requirements of the job demand that student nurses look to the future, the profession itself demands that instead they cling to the past’

Don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan of the recreational hat - who doesn’t like to accessorise? But a uniform needs to be functional and, unless the hat can turn into something useful in an emergency like a crash trolley or a submarine, it is a waste of material. And time.

But of course it doesn’t matter. It’s just a hat and no doubt some people like them, not least nurse milliners.

But it is useful I think to ask what we as a profession do to our students when we integrate them into nursing. Mostly we like to think we do good things don’t we? We like to think we teach them skills and knowledge and professionalism and responsibility. That we accompany them as they sculpt the human qualities that attracted them to nursing - a desire to help, a need to construct a meaningful working life - into something that will resonate into the hundreds of lives they have not yet encountered.

And we know that we teach them the “rules”: what the role is and what we can and can’t do, and what is OK to say and what isn’t. (“Don’t call the consultant with the hairpiece ‘carpet head’!”)

So what are we doing when we put a hat on them and tell them about the 19th century? Are we helping them to recognise the grand traditions they are joining? Are we asking them to embrace the same selfless principles that founded the great activity that is nursing? Or are we asking them to walk around with serviettes on their head in order to remind them not to stand too tall? That while the requirements of the job demand they look to the future, the profession itself demands that instead they cling to the past?

I think the student experience is hard enough, without us attaching anachronistic symbols to their foreheads. Given the responsibilities of student nurses these days, surely the second thing that we should be giving them - after the priority of ensuring they get the education and experience they need to become brilliant - is help and support. Whatever symbols nursing has should be liberating not stigmatising, particularly when applied to students.


Readers' comments (27)

  • I am very proud to be a nurse and was pleased to gain my buckle at the end of my training. I also wore a hat and a cape but I am not over 50. I did not feel as if i could not stand tall, in actual fact,I felt taller due to my hat. Patients liked them as they could tell who you were along with the dresses, we are here (supposedly but this seems forgotten sometimes)for patients.Nurses look very scruffy and unprofessional most of the time with hair not tied back and jewelery, even if we can't have hats at least make an effort with what we have. I do think the Scottish have a good look.

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  • Latterlife Midwife

    Excellent points, Mark. There is absolutely no functional reason for nurses to wear caps. It may have originated as a way to actually cover the hair (it is said that Flo had her nurses wear head coverings to keep their nits out of patient's wounds!) but nurses now can use scrub caps when their heads need covering.

    Wearing white caps nowadays is simply ridiculous and only serves to minimalize the professional level of nurses' roles in health care. Visualising your current male nursing colleagues wearing the same caps (absurd!) shows immediately that caps were a way to keep women nurses (pretty much the only kind then!) 'in their place' in our society.

    As a nursing student many years ago, I was enthralled with the image of what we wore - including the cap and cape, and even gloves sometimes! But then I grew up and became aware over time of the inequalities of this 'system.' It is only too clear now that caps were a symbol to relegate nurses to that lower status they were not to aspire above. That is a society I do not want to revisit. Tradition is only a good thing when no one's rights or status is being suppressed, subtly or otherwise.

    For those who feel this sort of thing puts us on a pedestal, well no thanks. I am a full partner in health care provision, and that's *alongside* doctors and other colleagues. Being put 'on a pedestal' is just another way to marginalise someone. As for patients and the public who like seeing caps and dresses on nurses, I guess they'll just have to keep dreaming. I'll consider wearing a silly white cap when male colleagues do, too.

    @ Flo40 - The issue of recognition by patients of their nurses is a totally separate issue and does need logical resolution. It should not be that difficult to design better name tags and enforce their use, and to apply the initials 'RN' somewhere on the uniform.

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  • I have to say that whilst I agree with some of the above I was very proud of the hat we wore and the individual uniform of the hospital I trained at. Cost effective no, practical no but a great sense of pride.
    What you find now are staff dressed in scruffy uniforms of so many types and colours it makes it hard to distinquish from a nurse/phlebotomist or cleaner. Hair is all over the place hanging over dressing trolleys and patients. Surely we have to have a balance of a practitcal uniform but restore a sense of pride and set some standards for how staff should look.

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  • TO be honest I feel that there is absoloutely no need for hats to go with the uniform, as I feel they serve no practical purpose at all, except perhaps to get in the way when we are trying to do our day to day tasks such as those that involve moving and handling. I'm sure infection prevention and control teams would have something to say about them!!

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  • Yes it may be useless, but what happened to having a pride in our uniform! I have had the pleasure of working along side the forces nursing staff and they make the NHS uniform or rather the way it is worn like a bag of rags. The old adage"if you cant take a pride in your uniform you wont take pride in your work" is something that rings true. If wearing a cap again helps to make nurses look smarter I am all for it.

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  • Its just like putting you hands in your pocket - slovenly dress equals a slovenly mind! Beware Nick Clegg!

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  • The hats worn by student nurses at Westminster Abbey on 12th May are not intended to be worn in practice.

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  • I was a nurse when the decision was made at a major hospital to ban hats. The reason was that the hats encouraged snobbery among the school's own graduates. We also found that mental health nurses were less likely to be struck by patients without uniforms. Hats are a nuisance to keep clean, therefore an infection control hazard, and they can fall off at inopportune times. Enough reasons?

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  • Martin Gray

    The old nurses hat/cap/study in linen origami did llok nice and professional in its day, but times have changed and we have to move with them. They are not practical nor do they serve any real purpose in todays nursing profession.

    However, there is no excuse for hair to be dirty, unkept or untidy, or dyed in fluorescent colours, or not tied back if too long. That is only common sense fromn the point of view of hygiene, cross infection, and safety (aggressive patients are surely more likely to grab hold of dangling hair?). Uniforms should be cleaned, pressed and well maintained - that shows pride in appearance and reflects the personal standards a nurse posesses (is that too many or too few 's'?).

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  • Steve Williams

    An excellently encapsulated article Mark and an equally apposite follow-up by Latterlife Midwife.

    Step back for a second and ponder this...

    Nurses are desperately trying to convince society that they are “professionals” and yet they still cling on to symbols of female servitude like caps, capes and buckles. How many other professionals (doctors, architects or lawyers) wear hats to denote their status?

    Nonsensicle and yet deeply sad how 21st Century nurses cling to meaningless attributes from 200 years ago. The MOST important part of any uniform I have ever worn is my name badge which reads - STEVE W. RN - that’s all I, my fellow professionals, my charges and their relatives need to know.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am not ‘Limey-bashing.’ It is no better over on this side of the pond either. In our local Ontario hospitals I see nurses in scrubs that make them look like “Boco The Clown” and then they drape a technically-redundant stethoscope around their necks in order to pronounce their status - duality or what?

    Good one Mark, keep serving up the bedpans and we will keep gulping them down!

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