A history of Western medical dress
Doctors' dress has changed through the ages, finds Andrea Carlino
The white coat, despite its simplicity, plays a strong symbolic role in hospital wards as well as helping to define the doctor-patient relationship. It evokes ideals of purity, sobriety, and cleanness while emanating a silent but powerful authority.
Assigning a social meaning to clothes is not a modern phenomenon. The ideal of sobriety is advocated in a text of the Hippocratic Corpus, under the title of On Decorum, probably dating from 4 BC. The author states that a truly reliable doctor can be detected by appearance, namely the absence of any special adornment or useless affectation. The text says that doctors should wear only clothes that express decorum and simplicity, tailored not to exhibit wealth and luxury but honesty, seriousness, and gravity—the dress becoming of men of learning and wisdom. Demand for this standard continues into early modern texts. The English surgeon John Arderne recalls in the Treatise on Fistulae