In The Social Psychology of Clothes (1996), Susan B. Kaiser frames occupational dress within a discussion about uniforms and various organisations related to work. Kaiser suggests that our expectations of how someone should dress within an organization are based not just on their role but also on the type of organization they belong to. In an organisation involving many people, where it is impossible to interact with everyone, uniforms help to discern roles and responsibilities quickly.
This year, I spent two months in hospital undergoing treatment for a serious heart infection. It was my first experience of full-time medical care offered by our national health service (NHS). According to the NHS website, it employs more than 1.6 million people, which puts it in the top five largest work organisations in the world. Others on that list include McDonalds, the Chinese Liberation Army and the US Department of Defence.
As a patient in an NHS hospital, the first thing you notice is the number of people involved in your day to day care. On a daily basis, I encountered nurses, student nurses, healthcare assistants, phlebotomists , consultants, registrars, pharmacists, student doctors, microbiologists, domestic staff, administrative staff, volunteers and clergy. I was able to identify the majority of these roles by dress association or, in other words, their specific uniform. While nurses wore blue and white uniforms, healthcare assistants wore pink and white. Domestic staff wore a bluey-purple colour. Senior nurses wore navy blue while a newly qualified nurse wore white.
The multitude of uniforms that passed by my bay each day certainly emphasised the bureaucracy of a large organisation like the NHS, where hierarchy, order and impersonality tend to govern the daily interactions of those within. However, without the uniforms, it would have been impossible for me to tell who and why someone might be by my bedside at any particular moment.
Even doctors, who are no longer obliged to wear a white lab coat and can wear their own clothes, adopted some degree of uniformed formality that distinguished them from patients or visitors. Kaiser (1996:290) suggests that in a service organisation, which mainly subsidized by taxes and where the aim is to benefit clients, occupational dress avoids demonstrations of prosperity. For the NHS doctors I observed, this tended to be in the form of shirts, trousers and skirts in muted colours or just plain black. Their clothing rarely seemed to draw attention to itself, favouring an austere or conservative approach.
I wanted to share these observations on occupational dress because I am about to write a short literature review on the topic for an upcoming paper. I would be very grateful if you could recommend any key texts or research, in particular on occupational dress within social and educational organisations. Please post them below in the comments section.