Vintage Nurse’s Uniforms

Detail, McCall Special R & S Red Cross operating gown and helmet in McCall’s, July 1917.

As a salute to our health care workers, this post is dedicated to vintage patterns for nurse’s uniforms.

1910s

Claire Avery WW1 illustration: Woman's Place is in a Uniform, Vogue, July 1918
Red Cross nurse with Red Cross worker, Vogue, July 1918. Illustration: Claire Avery. Image: Vogue Archive.

During the First World War, McCall’s sold commercial patterns for war work, including nurse’s uniforms, as well as official Red Cross patterns.

World War 1 nurse uniform pattern McCall 7845 with apron and cap pattern McCall 7847 in McCall's magazine, July 1917.
“The Nurse Fitted with Her Uniform and Apron”: nurse uniform pattern McCall 7845 with apron and cap pattern McCall 7847 in McCall’s, July 1917.

Few of these antique patterns seem to have survived, but the Commercial Pattern Archive has the unisex Red Cross operating gown:

McCall Special R (1917) Red Cross Surgeon's and Nurse's Operating Gown in Two Lengths
McCall Special R (1917) Red Cross Surgeon’s and Nurse’s Operating Gown in Two Lengths. Image: Emery, A History of the Paper Pattern Industry.

This illustration shows a nurse dressed for surgery in the gown, McCall Special R, and helmet Special S. (For more, see Patterns for the Great War.)

McCall Special R and S - Red Cross gown & helmet (1917)
McCall Special R and S (1917) Operating gown and helmet.

Nurses wore similar protective wear during the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-19. This archival photo shows a local Hamilton estate, Ballinahinch, that was donated for conversion to a hospital during the pandemic.

Ballinahinch Relief Hospital, Hamilton, Ontario, ca. 1918. Image: Local History & Archives, Hamilton Public Library.

1920s

Twenties-era patterns for nurse’s uniforms always seem to include the cap. This design dates to circa 1921, just before McCall’s patented the printed pattern.

McCall 2207 (ca. 1921) Nurses’ uniform (with cap). Image: eBay.

This drop-waisted uniform was still available two years later, but with a much higher hemline.

McCall 3524
McCall 3524 (ca. 1924) Nurses’ uniform and cap. Image: eBay.
1920s Nándor Honti paper doll illustrating McCall's patterns - nurse uniform and cap 3524, infant dress and petticoat 4252, bonnet 3105, embroidery 1339 - in McCall's magazine
“Baby McCall Goes for a Ride.” Paper doll by illustrator Nándor Honti in McCall’s, March 1926. Image: Pinterest.

The Vintage Pattern Lending Library sells reproductions of this late 1920s design. Swap in a contrast Peter Pan collar and cuffs and it doubles as a maid’s uniform.

McCall 5805 (1929) Nurse’s & service uniform. Image: VPLL on Etsy.

Andrea Cesari has several nurse patterns in her collection. The description for this one reads, “A uniform whose trim lines always look smart. The absence of fussy detail assures perfect laundering.”

Simplicity 7006 (ca. 1929)
Simplicity 7006 (ca. 1929) Nurses’ Uniform. Image: Unsung Sewing Patterns.

1930s

This early ’30s uniform is similarly sensible. (View on Etsy.)

McCall 7052 (1932) Nurses’ & service uniform. Image: eBay.

From Vogue, a late ’30s uniform that also includes a pintucked shirtdress:

Vogue 8106 (1938) Nurse’s uniform or dress. Image: The Blue Gardenia.

1940s

During the Second World War, dressmakers could again sew Red Cross nurse’s uniforms, as well as commercial designs. This back-buttoned nurse’s uniform from Simplicity includes the apron, but not the cap.

Simplicity 3882 (1941)
Simplicity 3882 (1941) Nurse’s uniform or dress with apron.

As in the previous World War, Red Cross patterns were available from many companies. McCall’s and Simplicity both sold patterns for the Red Cross Volunteer Special Service Corps. Here, the envelope stipulates: “Must be made in poplin; veil may be made in chiffon, georgette, voile, or lawn.” This uniform was not intended for hospital workers.

McCall 4641 (1942)
McCall 4641 (1942) American Red Cross Volunteer Special Service Corps washable uniform. Image: eBay.

The next year, the veil and white contrasts were gone. (Compare Cesari’s equivalent, Simplicity 4626.)

McCall 2501 (1943) American Red Cross Volunteer Special Service Corps washable uniform. Image: eBay.

This McCall’s retail catalogue shows the Special Service Corps uniform with two other Red Cross patterns, with a note that they were only available by special order.

Red Cross patterns McCall 2500, 2501 - December 1944. "The three Red Cross Patterns shown on this page are not carried in stock but can be ordered for you."
Red Cross patterns in McCall’s catalogue, December 1944. Image: Unexpected Necessities.

After the war, patterns for nurse’s uniforms return to their peacetime selves, fashionable yet practical — in this case with a three-piece shoulder pad. Do you have any uniform patterns in your collection?

Update: Instructions for no-sew masks (The Guardian) | Mask-making for the fashion industry (Business of Fashion Professional)

McCall 7517 (1948)
McCall 7517 (1948) Nurses’ Uniform or Ladies’ & Misses’ Dress.

Patterns for the Great War

Red Cross worker on the cover of Pictorial Review magazine, July 1917
Red Cross worker on the cover of Pictorial Review magazine, July 1917. Image: eBay.

This year marks the centennial of the beginning of World War 1. In honour of Armistice Day, this post looks at commercial sewing patterns associated with the First World War.

Porter Woodruff illustration on the cover of British Vogue, May 1918
British Vogue, May 1918. Illustration: Porter Woodruff. Image: Vogue UK.

This illustration from the July 1917 issue of McCall’s magazine shows McCall patterns suitable for war work: a nurse’s uniform, apron, and cap, and outdoor workwear including women’s overalls (patent pending):

nurses’ uniform 7845, apron and cap 7847, overall suit 7860, sun hat 7850, waist 7073, skirt 7011 - McCall's magazine, July 1917
“Responding to the Country’s Call.” McCall’s magazine, July 1917. Image: eBay.

Official Red Cross patterns exemplify the volunteer production of clothing and medical supplies that formed part of the war effort. American Red Cross patterns were published by multiple American pattern companies, while in the U.K., British Red Cross sewing and knitting instructions were available in several books by Emily Peek.* In Canada, volunteers sewing for the Canadian Red Cross may have used both British and American resources.

Practical instruction in cutting out and making up hospital garments for sick and wounded (approved by the Red Cross Society)
Working Uniform (B.R.C.S.) in Emily Peek, Practical Instruction in Cutting Out and Making Up Hospital Garments for Sick and Wounded (1914) Image: University of Southampton.
"Sewing for solidarity" - Women sew for the war effort in the old University of Toronto library, Canada
Women sew for the war effort in the old University of Toronto library. Image: U of T Magazine.

The McCall Fashions for February 1918 gives a list of American Red Cross patterns for garments to be used in hospitals and refugee camps; the cover illustration shows three women dressed “For the visit to the camp”:

WW1 McCall Fashions (Style News) for February 1918
“For the Visit to the Camp.” McCall Fashions, February 1918. Image: eBay.

The inside front cover lists two types of official American Red Cross pattern: “for the relief of refugees and repatriates in the war-stricken countries, particularly in France and Belgium” and for hospital garments. The illustrations show an infant’s layette, unisex children’s cape, reversible bed jacket, and trench foot slipper (click to enlarge):

Red Cross patterns and hospital garments in WW1 McCall Fashions (Style News) for February 1918
New Official American Red Cross patterns. McCall Fashions, February 1918. Image: eBay.

Update: Weldons, the British pattern company, had similar patterns “for our troops”:

Embed from Getty Images

A news article from June, 1918 discusses the most needed hospital garments and supplies corrections for two refugee garment patterns. It seems the “helpless case shirt” (for patients with arm injuries) was available in two versions:

What the Red Cross Is Doing and What You Can Do - Drumright Evening Derrick, 17 Jun 1918
Drumright Evening Derrick, June 17, 1918. Image: Oklahoma Historical Society.

(Full archived version here.)

Andrea of Unsung Sewing Patterns has a copy of the “helpless case shirt,” Red Cross 35—more sensitively called a taped hospital bed shirt:

WW1 McCall Red Cross taped hospital bed shirt pattern - Red Cross 35
McCall Red Cross 35 (ca. 1917) Image: Unsung Sewing Patterns.

(See Unsung Sewing Patterns for more Red Cross refugee patterns.)

A 1917 article in McCall’s magazine describes the Red Cross relief effort and seven new patterns for hospital work. It presents sewing as an alternative to nursing, for which fewer women were qualified, arguing that “[s]ewing may not seem to many as romantic as nursing the wounded upon the battlefield, but without it the nursing might be useless.” Interestingly, official American Red Cross patterns were at first distributed through the organization’s national headquarters, but later became available directly to the public (click to enlarge):

"How to Help the Red Cross--Now! Army and navy look to the women of the country to provide for the comfort of the wounded and convalescent" McCall's July 1917 Red Cross patterns
“How to Help the Red Cross–Now!” McCall’s magazine, July 1917.

On the right, readers found descriptions of the new patterns, accompanied by photographs showing Red Cross officials Jane A. Delano and Clara D. Noyes, and women in a Red Cross chapter at work:

"Throughout the country, in Red Cross chapter, in club, church guild, and small home, women are doing their 'bit' for the soldiers." McCall's Jul 1917 photograph
“Throughout the country, in Red Cross chapter, in club, church guild, and small home, women are doing their ‘bit’ for the soldiers.” McCall’s magazine, July 1917.

The illustrations of the new patterns seek to include the Red Cross sewing effort in the romance of nursing. Here a nurse serves a meal to a patient who is wearing McCall Special C, a hospital bed shirt:

Red Cross hospital bed shirt pattern ilustrated: McCall Special C (1917)
McCall Special C (1917) Red Cross hospital bed shirt.

McCall Special P is a pair of pajamas:

Red Cross pajamas pattern illustrated: McCall Special P (1917)
McCall Special P (1917) Red Cross pajamas.

To be made from one or two blankets, McCall Special O is a bathrobe or convalescent gown:

Red Cross bathrobe or convalescent gown illustrated: McCall Special O (1917)
McCall Special O (1917) Red Cross bathrobe or convalescent gown.

McCall Special R is a Red Cross Surgeon’s and Nurse’s operating gown—a unisex medical uniform available in two sizes:

Red Cross operating gown pattern illustration: McCall Special R (1917)
McCall Special R (1917) Red Cross operating gown.

The illustration of the Red Cross nurse also shows the McCall Special S operating helmet:

Red Cross operating gown and operating helmet pattern illustrated: McCall Special R helmet (1917)
McCall Special R and S (1917) Red Cross operating gown and operating helmet.

The Commercial Pattern Archive has both sizes of McCall Special R its collection. The larger is reproduced in Joy Emery’s new book:

1910s WW1 Red Cross pattern - McCall Special R
McCall Special R (ca. 1917). Red Cross Surgeon’s and Nurse’s operating gown. Image: Emery, A History of the Paper Pattern Industry.

Do you have any World War I patterns in your collection?

* Seligman, Cutting for All! (Southern Illinois UP, 1996), pp. 123-24, cited in Emery, A History of the Paper Pattern Industry (Bloomsbury, 2014), p. 91. A digitized version of Emily Peek, Practical Instruction in Cutting Out and Making Up Hospital Garments for Sick and Wounded: Approved by the Red Cross Society (British Red Cross Society, 1914), is available through the University of Southampton.