This e-mail was sent to me by Penny Hammond, and is reprinted in it's entirety. As you will see, she's done some really excellent research on the dress she used to wear as a Nurse. I've added the pictures so you don't have to keep on flipping pages. Enjoy.
Your site is very interesting and to be commended, it is a true archive of a disapearing world. My husband (a real uniform aficionado from my days in nursing) believes that the move away from the traditional nurses' uniform to "scrubs" is unfortunate, as indeed is the move away from all formal women's workwear dresses (he was always especially keen on the brown Sainsbury's uniform and the Boot's shopgirls' long sleeve uniforms, in particular the white dresses of the pharmacy counter girls and the blue "general" dresses). I would have to agree with him.
My reason for writing is to add some further information to your valuable archive. As my husband says, it is all to easy for information to be lost.
As can be seen from some of your pictures it is clear that during the '60s, '70s and '80s the evolution of the design of the American nursing dress took a somewhat different direction from that in the UK. This was particularly apparent in the tendency for their dresses to have a rear zip fastening (see for example the head nurse in Coma). You have made a few references to rear fastenings in the commentary to your pictures but did you know that rear zip dresses were commonly worn in the UK in the Newcastle area from the early '70s to quite recently? I am a little hazy on the history of this dress, but it being my husband's favourite of my uniforms and it having been worn at the time by a large number of women, I have done a little research and would like to pass on what I know (and maybe find out more from others).
Of your picture collection the Newcastle dress is seen only in REAL 730 (on page 107). From the label it was made of polyester cotton by J.R. Parkin Ltd. of Halifax (who no longer seem to be in business). The dress was short sleeved and rather different in that it had a rear zip. This allowed a rather clean line to the front of the dress made from a single yoke across the front above the bust front and three front panels made up the rest of the bodice and "skirt" of the dress. The "Peter Pan" collar was split in the front to give a small round section at the neck (as the Newcastle qualification badge at that time was a medal on a ribbon, this was often worn from this area) and also split at the back (to allow for the zip) but this often had an annoying habit of standing away from the dress. The following scans, which were kindly sent to me by Derrick, illustrate this perfectly.
From experience I can tell you that the dress was quite "fitted" (part, I think, of its attraction to my husband!) and when fully zipped up at the back was often quite difficult to move in (especially making beds etc.). Many of the girls would unzip the top of the rear zip for a few inches to allow for more movement.
Interestingly, the exact same design of dress was used for all grades of nurse differing only in colour (and sometimes accessories). Student nurses wore (at most hospitals) a white dress, SENs wore a stone dress (though at some auxiliaries wore stone and SENs dark green), SRN/RGNs a corn-flower blue dress and Sisters a navy blue dress with a white collar. My understanding is that when the rest of England (I am not sure what happened in Scotland or Wales) moved to the check National Uniform dress in the early '70s, the Northern NHS Region opted for the rear zip style of dress as their "National Uniform" and, despite its impracticalities, its rate of acceptance seems to have been better than with the "other" National Uniform. As such it was worn throughout the Northern NHS Region including hospitals in Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesborough. At Middlesborough hospitals it was often accompanied by Petersham belts and cuffs making it, I would imagine, even harder to move in.
With the advent of the NHS Trusts during the mid-'90s, individual hospitals began to move away from the "Newcastle" dress though it seems to have been preserved for a time by a number of nursing schools.
Overall it would appear that this dress was chosen for its style over its function, it was certainly awkward to get into and sometimes uncomfortable to move around in. However, seeing photos of girls in this dress does give me a certain sense of nostalgia for my time as a student and registered nurse and the dress certainly had a beneficial effect on my husband.
I hope you find the above of interest and that others can possibly shine more light onto why this particular design was chosen over the other National Uniform and their experiences of the "Newcastle" dress.
Added October 2001
Here's some Australian Nurses at their Graduation party in the mid-70s. The dress looks familiar; if there's any Australian Nurses out there who wore this style, then Penny would like to hear from you.
Added December 2001
I found this picture on the BBC website. Looks like an SRN/RGN and a student,and dates from the early '90s. Hospital unknown; but showing how the collars lifted up at the back.
Rear view of the dress, usually so tight across the bust and back that the zip had to be undone to give a sensible range of movement.
I swear after seeing your Newcastle dress, it is the dress my student LPN dresses were designed after...only ours were pinstriped blue. Awful little bit of material, you could hardly move in it during clinicals to make beds and stooping over to pick up something dropped was near unto impossible. If your were big busted at all that just made it stretch tighter and harder to move in, which is why men probably liked it. That was our regs, with cap and white hose and white shoes. Your had to carry extra shoe strings with you and shoe polish, you never new when Ms. Meyer would inspect and make you polish your shoes or change your laces if you didn't suit her. I remember one poor unfortunate student had to wash her face, too much makeup and Ms. M said we were going to be NURSES and not hotsy totsies. You bought back hysterical memories. In RN school in the 90's in south Missouri it was just white scrubs, no fun and no matter what you did they looking frumpy. At least that dress stayed neat but Lord of Lord it was a terror to wear.
Penny has also sent me these two pictures.
Student Nurses from the former Bede, Newcastle and Northumbria College of Health Studies in 1995.
Sarah sent me this 1990 picture of Student Nurses from Sunderland.
Sister's dress, spotted for sale on Ebay by Diane.
Added April 2003
These pics come from Penny's own collection and show some of the other colours the dress was made in.
SEN, South Cleveland District General Hospital, early '90s.
SRN, Newcastle General Hospital, late '80s.
SEN (stone) and SRN (blue), Newcastle General, late '80s.
SRN/RGN, The Freeman Hospital, Newcastle, late '80s.
New January 2004
Nurses from the Freeman Hospital, Newcastle, taken sometime in the 1980s.
Spotted on Ebay, May 1 2004.
Spotted on Ebay, March 2005.
New June 2006 Class photo taken in 1983.
Spotted on Ebay, April 2007.
New March 2008 Vidcaps of actress Julia Tobin from the 1986 TV series Auf Widersehen, Pet. Thanks to Darren.
New June 2012 A couple of pictures from the 1970s and 80s.