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Catwalk show celebrates history of nurse uniforms


Nurse uniforms from the past century to the present day were among the highlights of a special catwalk show to celebrate the history of a leading workwear company.

The uniforms were modelled as part of an event celebrating over 150 years of the Bristol-based firm Alexandra, which began as a drapers’ shop in 1854.

“Changes in the old social order saw women taking up professional roles such as nursing”

Catherine Littlejohns

Because healthcare forms a major part of its history and its modern business, the nursing uniforms were chosen to take centre stage in the show.

It included a specially re-created Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse from the First World War, a 1940s nurse with red-lined blue cape, a 1970s nurse, a nurse from the year 2000, and a current-day nurse in modern scrubs.

Overall, the show included 12 re-created uniforms dating back to the early 1900s, covering both male and female garments from nursing, business and industry.


Catwalk show celebrates history of nurse uniforms

Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse from the First World War

Today the Alexandra brand, which has been owned by US company Men’s Wearhouse since 2010, describes itself as the “UK’s No. 1 provider of workwear”.

However, its origins date back a Bristol shop on the city’s famous Whiteladies Road, which was founded by Granville Davis, and named after Princess Alexandra of Denmark, the future wife of King Edward VII.

Initially selling fabric to make uniforms for VADs who care for injured soldiers, it went on to develop protective workwear for various industries as well as nursing roles following the creation of the NHS.

The company’s own shop staff had worn the VAD uniform when they volunteered to serve in the St John’s Ambulance Voluntary Aid Detachment, and a picture from 1915 shows them in training.

The show, held at the M Shed museum on Bristol’s waterfront, celebrated the publication of a book about Alexandra’s history, produced in association with Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives.


Catwalk show celebrates history of nurse uniforms

A nurse from the year 2000

The company said was inspired by its own archive to publish a history of the company, after celebrating its 160th anniversary in 2014. The project ultimately took more than two years.

Alexandra managing director Martin Lyne said: “Thanks to the foresight of the Davis family, who founded Alexandra, and recognised the shift in women’s roles through the 19th and 20th century, we have a wonderful archive which we wanted to share with customers, colleagues, suppliers and the wider community.”

Catherine Littlejohns, senior curator of social history at Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives, added: “The history of the draper’s shop captures the lives of both the wealthy Edwardian ladies in Bristol who shopped at Alexandra and the young women who worked there.

“Both were changed forever through the impact of war, as the development of industry and changes in the old social order saw women taking up professional roles such as nursing, manufacturing and government administration. It’s a special snapshot and a fascinating insight into a time of great change,” she said.


Readers' comments (3)

  • Ellen Watters

    I loved my collar cuffs apron and hat - impractical as they were.. The spray on starch I must have inhaled over the years..:)

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  • They dressed us like maids for years and we celebrate that? Please. The uniform had a great deal to do with nurses being treated as Dr's hand maidens for years. Lets not look back. Just forward.

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  • Unweildy, nun-like virtuous costumes only now becoming practical and less demeaning. I won't look back at those old uniforms with fond romaticised memories, I simply see a woman dressed in a male world forced to wear clothes which were completely ridiculous. Thank goodness we got rid of those stupid, white dresses, those were agonizing to wear. Starched rigid, highly uncomfortable and unseemly, they were little more than window dressing for gawky eyes. Hated them. At least the new style uniforms show a little more respect for those wearing them, do not distinguish between genders and are so much easier to wear and work in.

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