Angels in Waiting

Uniforms are cultural artifacts. They encapsulate social values, priorities, gender biases, romanticized ideals, and more. Practicality factors in, too. During WWI, for example, combat soldiers stopped wearing bright colors that had characterized European military uniforms for centuries, in order to make themselves less visible to the enemy in trench warfare.

As I built the world of 1915 for my novel, I researched uniforms of the period—not only for soldiers, but also for nurses in France, where much of the story takes place. In the process, I uncovered a wonderful book, French Fashion, Women & the First World War edited by Maude Bass-Krueger and Sophie Kurkdjian, a companion volume to the exhibition by the same name at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery in New York, September 5, 2019 – January 5, 2020.

Here I found photos and illustrations of French nursing uniforms, as well as the history behind them. No surprise. It’s complicated.

One glimpse of a WWI-era French nurse, and you immediately think of nuns, due to the short, habit-like veil that concealed most or all of the woman’s hair. But nuns, who had publicly tended the sick in France since the sixth century, had been banned from hospital service after the French Revolution. According to Johanne Berlemont’s and Anaïs Raynaud’s “Nurses’ Uniforms” essay in French Fashion, nuns returned to clinic work in the 19th century, only to be virulently opposed by radical republicans, who perceived them as “bigots with narrow moral conceptions” and who campaigned to oust them from military hospitals. By the early 1900s, the secularization and professionalization of nursing was complete, and nuns no longer worked in French hospitals.

Nurses’ uniforms, however, still echoed nuns’ habits. Berlemont and Raynaud note that Louis Pasteur’s discoveries about the importance of sanitized hands, equipment, and spaces in medical settings also influenced uniform design:

“Nuns preferred dark habits, which hid dirt, but hygienic doctors rejected these because it was difficult to detect possible soiling, and so the white cotton apron replaced the dark wool dress. Cotton was chosen for its easy cleaning and maintenance. Even though the length of the skirts and coats was not specified, photographs show that they were worn to just above the ankle. Veils were simplified so that nurses could work with ease, but eventually they were replaced by a cap that hid the hair for hygienic as well as moral reasons. Because nurses were expected to suppress any hint of sexual passion, hair, a traditional agent of feminine seduction, was hidden in order to conform with moral restrictions placed on women working in such close proximity to men.”

Secular nurses serving in French military hospitals were drafted into service on August 2, 1914, reporting to doctors in hospitals or at the front. As casualties mounted, however, more help was needed. Civilian nurses joined their ranks, and non-professional volunteers, typically wealthy women, helped care for the wounded behind the lines and back home. Berlemont and Raynaud observe, however, that these volunteers, who scored high-society points through charitable work, were not roundly appreciated:

“For some upper-class women, serving as nurses meant that they could exhibit their charity in broad daylight as they cared for the wounded. However, as a group they were frequently mocked by their colleagues and the press who were unable to see beyond social hierarchies to the sincere and important involvement of volunteers. Many worked with ambulances on the front line and in hospitals at home, and their work enabled the health-care system to function.”

Trained nuns, too, were ultimately allowed back into hospitals, given the overwhelming need for good nursing care. A romanticized notion of nurses as ministering angels took hold of the public imagination. In magazines, posters, and postcards, they were often portrayed as saintly women—but also, sometimes, as sex objects for men’s fantasies. Nurses’ uniforms became symbols of purity and elegance (and forbidden sex), and were embraced by women’s fashion magazines, to the point that the French Minister of War issued a decree in March 1915 that regulated when the uniform could be worn.

The evolution of the French nurse’s uniform also reflected women’s emancipation during the War. From the dark, heavy habit of a religious penitent to the light, cotton dress and bib with Red Cross insignia, these changes in fashion reflected the need for easy-to-clean, comfortable, affordable work-wear that enabled French nurses to play their essential role in caring for millions of sick and wounded.

Evelyn Herwitz writes about the journey of writing her first novel—a work of historical fiction set in World War I—the vagaries of the creative process, and her quest for publication, at

Image: Bain News Service, Publisher. French Red Cross nurses. [Between and Ca. 1915] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

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