Workwear through the ages: from then to now

Workwear has changed significantly over time. Here Tyesha Muncaster, digital marketing executive at Cobra Workwear, looks at how specific work uniforms have developed through the ages, from then to now.

Over time, workwear has changed significantly. As materials have become more accessible and technology has advanced, it makes sense that this would be the case.

Here, I’ll look at how a few specific uniforms have developed through the ages.


Nowadays, firefighters are equipped with special protection uniforms that not only have the ability to display contamination but that also feature advanced fire, water, and heat protection.

However, this has not always been the case. An earlier firefighter uniform used from around the mid-1800s till the early-1900s was very different indeed. During this time, a firefighter’s whole uniform was pretty much entirely woollen. Not very effective in protecting the firefighter.

As time went on, rubber leggings were introduced to provide a more comfortable experience due to their lighter weight and more waterproof nature. In the late 1980s, however, the first Nomex suit was introduced. This suit was waterproof and offered much higher heat and fire resistance than previous uniforms. From then on, firefighter uniforms continued to develop and became much more protective as well as resistant to heat and fire, making the firefighters a lot safer in their roles.


Nursing uniforms have changed a lot over the years. Around the 1800s, nursing was officially recognised as a profession; it was also around this time when the first recognisable nurse’s uniform was worn. This consisted of a long (usually black) dress, with a cap and apron. In the early 1900s, nursing uniforms generally became lighter coloured to allow nurses to be more recognisable. World War I also meant that nursing uniforms were forced to adapt to the current conditions; they were therefore fitted with pockets and sleeves that could be rolled up.

By World War II, an increased understanding of disease and biology meant a further understanding of contamination. As a result, aprons were made easier to launder and remove, meaning nurses were put slightly less at risk of contamination.

By the 1970s, skirts became shorter to make it easier and more comfortable for nurses to move around; cotton caps were also replaced by disposable paper versions in order to make uniforms more hygienic. The 1980s saw the introduction of trousers, open-neck shirts, and plastic aprons, and it wasn’t too long before the 1990s saw the popularity of scrubs rise, coming in an array of colours and fabrics with hygiene as a top priority.


The chef uniform dates back to the 1800s when French artist Marie-Antoine Careme released a book that featured two chefs wearing what we now recognise as a traditional chef’s uniform. Although the look of the uniform itself hasn’t changed much over the years, the origins and intentions of the different elements of it have.

At first glance, it would appear that the primary purpose of the chef’s hat (toque) is to keep hair out of the way. However, its main use was to display professionalism and reputation. Toques were often used to display the position and skill level of a chef based on the number of pleats.

The chef’s jacket is generally made from heavy-duty materials to protect the chef from any potential hazards. The double-breasted design can also be useful in hiding stains and, also symbolises professionalism and authority. The houndstooth pattern often seen is also great for hiding any stains or spillages.

Office Workers

Office workwear has fluctuated a lot. We’ve seen trends come, go, and come back again; however, it wasn’t until the 1990s where office workers began to experiment with smart-casual attire.

In the early 1900s, men wore full suits to work and women wore long, modest dresses. As the roaring 20s surfaced, women began experimenting with shorter hair and straighter silhouettes; this continued somewhat into the 1930s where workers began to sport more relaxed looks. In the 1940s however, formal attire made a comeback with men wearing double-breasted suits and bowler hats.

The 1960s was when bursts of colour were seen in offices. Men in particular were often seen in bright colours and loud patterns. This was less common in the 1970s, however, where women saw the rise of the pantsuit and, of course, the 1980s saw the explosion of the power suit. The 90s saw more smart-casual workwear make an appearance; this carried on into the 2000s and today, casual attire in the office is more popular than ever.

Ultimately, it makes sense as to why uniforms in the medical and emergency sectors would have changed over time.

As technology has advanced, it would be practical to adapt uniforms in order to keep workers. On the other hand, however, the design of the chef uniform has barely changed over time.

It will be interesting to see how workwear evolves in the future or whether it will stay largely the same, as with the traditional chef uniform.

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