Sunday, 27 April 2014

What does clothing communicate about the wearer?

Clothes are never a frivolity; they always mean something.
- James Laver

My anthropological studies from my student days have affected the way I view clothing. The function of clothing was first to protect the body from the environment and then to differentiate the wearer from his or her neighbours. Jewellery and clothing embellishment thrived, whether with hair, thread, bone, diamonds or metal. Just about any substance, where beauty naturally occurred or was somehow shaped, came to be symbolic of one's wealth, social standing or occupation.

We still use clothing to express ourselves and to indicate our standing in the community or perhaps to communicate what we would like our standing to be. Think of those in legal battles who are told to wear suits to their trials or job applicants who are advised to dress professionally.

Recently the idea of clothing being symbolic of our professions hit the CBC radio interview roster. The Saskatchewan Union of Nurses is running a "wear white campaign" for registered nurses in the province. Owing to feedback from patients, SUN is asking their membership to wear a white top to designate their professional standing. SUN's president says that they are responding to a survey that illustrated clients wanting to know who is attending to them. In the myriad of prints, patterns and colours, patients and their families are confused. As a family member of someone who was recently terminally ill in the hospital, I am one of the "clients" who understands completely and appreciates what SUN is asking their nurses to do. 

Some in the profession are objecting using the "comfort" card for both clients and nurses. The main argument seems to be that professionals wearing colourful clothing is more approachable, less institutional and therefore clients are more comfortable than having "starched whites" attend to them. It seems the survey results differ with this approach. As to personal preference, SUN affirms that the nature of the job dictates that the comfort of the patient comes first.

And so the debate begins . . . but what about the LPNs (licensed practical nurses) and the doctors (oh yes they're the ones with the lab coats and stethoscopes). It will be interesting to see how the nurses respond.

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