No uniform identity

The mental images of nurses run the gamut from angel of mercy Florence Nightingale to the dreaded Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. A generation ago, all nurses were still in starched white belted dresses with little perky wing caps bobby-pinned to they upswept hair. No matter the dress, the image or the attractiveness of the caregiver, there has always been an overlay of sexuality. Everyone wants to be someone’s English patient.

All of the complex attributes that make up nursing are explored in a fascinating exhibit at the Fabric Workshop and Museum, 1315 Cherry St. "RN: The Past, Present and Future of the Nurses’ Uniform" runs through Feb. 14. It "investigates the often subtle ways in which the uniform, by design, informs notions of identity, professional hierarchy and labor within the field."

In many ways, the exhibit itself is a work of art by two artists who researched nurses’ uniforms, designed outfits for the future and collected all of the delightful artifacts that supported the exhibit, such as the section of nurses in popular culture. The pair — Mark Dion and J. Morgan Puett — sorted through the files of the now-defunct Marvin Neitzel Nursing Uniform Co. of Troy, N.Y., and found themselves drawn to Philadelphia.

Here, they drew upon their own costume archive, plus the collections of the Center for the Study of the History of Nursing and the School of Nursing Alumni Archive — both at the University of Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Ars Medica collection, the Museum of Nursing History and Villanova University. Their research and subsequent displays range from the inception of the standard uniform in 1874 in the Bellevue Hospital Training School in New York to "The Intergalactic Nurse" circa 2206 as portrayed by Dion and Puett.

The pair currently live in Beach Lake, Pa., but their artistic reach extends internationally. Puett graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in painting/sculpture. Recent exhibitions include shows at the Albert and Victoria Museum in London, Spoleto USA in Charleston and Wave Hill in New York.

Dion studied in New York at the School of Visual Arts and the Whitney Independent Study Program. He holds a bachelor’s in fine arts and a doctorate from the University of Hartford. Recent exhibitions include shows at the Aldrich Museum, Kunstverein in Bonn, Germany, and the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio.

The Fabric Workshop exhibition is divided chronologically. The past is represented by old uniforms, artifacts and documentation from a wide variety of sources. According to the curators’ research, early uniforms were somewhat dour and until 1912 included a bone corset tightly laced beneath the dress to produce an "hourglass" silhouette. Later came seersucker, sensible shoes, school badges or pins, and distinctive caps for each nurse training program.

The present nurse is represented by the work of focus groups conducted by the artists to conceive of the "ideal nurses’ uniform" which, as part of the exhibition, are actually being manufactured in a reconstruction of the old Neitzel factory. Part of the exhibition deals with the attitudes developed during the 1960s, which perceived white starched nurses’ uniforms as servile and therefore inappropriate to the emerging roles of women within and outside of healthcare. Thus the adoption of a sort of non-gender-based uniform, which in some areas has also become a status fashion symbol. That’s the blue pajama comfortable "scrub."

One of the fallouts of that look, however, is the patient and other hospital employees can’t easily tell with a glance who’s a nurse. The solution from the focus groups was a clear red-and-white logo that could be added to other types of dress to identify nurses. Due to the nature of today’s hospital environment, Puett and Dion designed separate interchangeable pieces that can be added to scrubs. The components attempt to satisfy the identification requirement as well as practical needs.

As the section on nurses’ images in Hollywood movies, paperback novels and television reveals, the artists are focused both on the social aspects as well as the practical. Thus, they have identified a number of stereotypical categories that have plagued nurses. These include the nurse as warrior, mother, sexual fantasy, love interest or the Nurse Ratched type. As noted in the exhibit, these "socially constructed" images have not always been positive or even accurate. There is a concerted effort in the show, however, to explore the entire range of elements.

Future nurses are the most imaginative, with different types portrayed. These include "Bioterrorism Nurse," "Diagnostic Nurse" and "Post-Apocalyptic Nurse." As one would imagine, these uniforms are high-tech, highly protective and highly expensive. SPR

RN: The Past, Present and Future of the Nurses’ Uniform
Through Feb. 14
Fabric Workshop and Museum
1315 Cherry St.
Fifth and sixth floors
Suggested donation of $5 adults, $2 children