The Evolution of Nursing Shoes — From Florence Nightingale to Future Materials


Whether you’re a student or a long-serving veteran nurse, you might be forgiven for thinking that your shoes are a pretty boring part of your uniform. Sure, they’re practical, hopefully comfortable, and definitely hygienic.

However, while they’re an integral part of your everyday wear, they’re hardly the most fashionable item in your wardrobe, and even with today’s rather fetching designs and practical innovations, they’re still relegated to the status of “work shoes”.

But before you write off your humble nurses’ shoes as just another prescribed item of workwear, maybe give a little thought to how things used to be. That’s right, nurses’ shoes have come a long way since they were first introduced way back in the 19th century.

Here, we take a look at the evolution of nurses’ shoes and how things might look in the future—so you can discover a new found appreciation for those forgotten workhorses for the feet!


Early Uniforms


Florence Nightingale is generally credited as first to introduce uniforms for nurses. During the Crimean War of 1854, she instructed all of her nurses to wear simple grey tweed dresses and white caps. After the war, she laid the foundations for modern nursing with the establishment of her nursing school at St Thomas’s Hospital.

However, it was one of her students who designed the uniform this time, and while the shoes were pretty much an after-thought, they helped those early nurses develop a sense of professionalism and pride. Black leather lace-ups were the standard during this era, however, unlike today’s shoes, they were hard on the feet and definitely not designed with hygiene in mind.


Germs and the Advent of White Shoes


Everyone loves the white nurses’ shoe, right? They’re just so easy to keep clean! Well, you can thank the development of germ theory for the advent of those pristine pieces of impractical footwear. Through the 1920s to the Second World War, white became synonymous with hygiene.

Nurses’ uniforms became white from head to toe, and the shoes followed as new industrial tanning processes were able to produce sparkly white leathers. Additionally, and particularly during the two wars, the sheer difficulty in keeping uniforms and shoes white was a direct expression of a nurses’ professionalism and dedication.

In certain situations, particularly when working out in the field, black leather was preferred, however, once they had a foot in the door, white leather shoes for nurses were definitely here to stay.


A Feminist Call to Arms


Nurses’ uniforms remained pretty traditional until the 1960s, with dresses, skirts and blouses defining the job role (a role almost exclusively filled by women). However, during second-wave feminism of the 60s, women began to question how the uniform negatively distinguished nurses from doctors. This led to a revolution in hospital workwear that attempted to redress the balance.

Pantsuits came in the 70s, and the now iconic scrubs in the 80s, both attempting to find a gender-neutral uniform that would bring nurses the respect they deserved and integrate male nurses to the profession.

Shoes of the time followed suit, and as technology improved, the standard white leather shoes were replaced more practical designs that began to take everyday comfort seriously. Velcro fasteners replaced laces, paving the way for the convenient slip-ons so popular today.


A Modern Practicality


Today, of course, you’ll find nurses’ shoes in a huge variety of colours, shapes and styles, with practicality and comfort high up on the list of features. Plastic clogs that easily slip on and off are now standard, providing support for long-suffering feet while ensuring practicality through the use of durable and easy-clean materials.

Many hospitals realise the impracticality of white, and so it is generally only required during clinicals while attending nursing school. Here, tradition may win out over practicality, however, for working nurses, certain hospitals may also demand white shoes as part of the uniform.  


The Future of Nurses Shoes


The future of nurses’ shoes looks bright—but not necessarily white! There are many innovations and new materials that look set to increase comfort, durability, hygiene, and practicality for nurses, with reduced weight and increased support high up on the list of priorities. The rainbow of colours currently available looks set to continue, however, white will always be an important part of your kit too.

Sustainability is one area where innovations are already being made, and as plastics fall increasingly out of favour, alternatives such as bioplastics or even mycelium-based materials may take centre stage. 3D printing is another exciting development that looks set to help nurses whose shoes are always a little too large or small, with scanning technology helping anyone find the perfect fit. Finally, whether you love or hate the classic white clog, self-cleaning materials might just allow you to keep those sparkly whites in pristine condition—however long your shift.

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