The use of a special medical uniform for surgical and other procedures was not normal practice until the early part of the twentieth century. Surgical procedures often took place in large amphitheatres where medical students could observe the operations being carried out by the physicians. In most cases the surgeons wore everyday street clothing during the procedure, except sometimes the surgeons donned butchers’ aprons to protect their clothes. In those days the importance of sterility was not recognized, so instruments and supplies were not commonly sterilized. The sutures used for closing wounds were usually just gut string sewn with a normal sewing needle which was reused over and over. Even the gauze employed to cover the wound was often nothing more than remnants taken from cotton mill floors.
The sea change in medical dress came after the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918 in which twenty million people died; together with the rise of Lister’s theory of antisepsis. The beginning of special medical dress was surgeons and other medical personnel wearing masks, which was done more to protect the physician from the patient’s illness rather than to protect the patient. At this time too heavy rubber gloves began to be used by medical staffers to protect themselves from harsh chemicals used in cleaning the medical environment. By the nineteen forties, with the awareness of how wounds can become infected and of the need to have a sanitary environment in the operating room, medical staff professionals began wearing white uniforms during surgery and routinely in their daily rounds.
The first medical scrubs in wide use were white drapes or gowns which covered the surgeon and medical assistants during operations. The white colored fabrics used in these scrubs symbolized cleanliness. However, it was soon found that white clothing worn against a background of white sheets and a white surgical environment often caused eyestrain. It was in the nineteen fifties and sixties that medical and dental scrubs, usually of a green or blue color which is more restful to the eyes and also doesn’t show bloodstains as readily, came into widespread use. Soon designers of medical apparel began experimenting with different colors and styles of scrubs, and by the nineteen eighties it was possible for medical professionals to select from a wide array of colors and fashionable designs. Today’s medical scrubs range from cheap nursing scrubs to elegantly designed coordinated outfits suitable for street wear; and from short sleeved, V neck shirts with drawstring pants to formal jackets and gowns. Fabrics used for medical scrubs come in a wide range of solid colors, and feature bright prints (which are popular among medical professionals who work with children). Durable fabrics, which are easy to clean, are among the most popular.