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White Coats - The Physicians Facelift

When you think of a doctor, what is the first thing that comes to your mind?

Nerds? A stethoscope? For me, the most iconic part of a doctors involvement is the white coat that adorns his or her outfit. It is, to me and many others, a matter of immense pride and prestige. But how did it come to be?

The history of the white coat is unclear and there is a lot of ambiguity. However, the rise of this fashion statement, gives us a glimpse into the exciting future of the fashion of medicine.

During the time of the black plague, in the 1600s, a French doctor named Charles de Lorne designed a large black wax coat and scary mask with a beak. The purpose of this was give whole body protection against the “bad air” that they believed was the cause of the plague. The mask served an even cooler purpose. The beak on the mask was actually a space for fragrant herbs and flowers so as to prevent the foul air from getting into the doctor and causing the disease.


However, during these times, doctors were simply seen as an extension of magicians. They were seen as mystics who used spells and incantations and obscure procedures to try and help an ailing patient. They were little more than a bell on the cow of death because they knew that when the doctor came, death was soon to follow.

But that image of doctors changed with the industrial revolution that began in the 1800s. As engineering and technology made advances of leaps and bounds, so did medicine. And soon, Joseph Lister was preaching cleanliness and hand washing and John Snow (who knew a lot, by the way.) was showing the world what destruction water and a tiny microbe could cause.

But even then doctors looked shabby. They wore dark overalls and even operated in them. They desperately needed a facelift. And so surgeons decided to be the first ones to change to white coats. This allowed them to see stains and dirt easily and keep themselves clean. After surgeons, chief physicians began to wear them and eventually all in house doctors began to wear them.

Surgeons operating in black over coats.

Surgeons operating in black over coats.


The white coat came to represent the cleanliness and purity of the profession. With the white coat, other parts of the medical profession also began focusing on clean and shiny things. The colour white began to penetrate even the smallest parts of the field.

But, in a few years, the white coat no longer served a practical purpose in most medical fields. It became a portrayal of power. Aspects of the uniform came to show your level in the medical ladder. Long sleeves put a step higher than short sleeves. Knee length coats were better than hip length coats. This obviously led to frustration and discrimination and many parts of medicine now are dropping the use of lab coats.

Today, many surgeons have opted for scrubs of light blue or light green that allow them to see stains better and also reduce eye strain in the operation theatres. Psychiatrists have ditched the lab coat for comfortable formal wear so as to connect better with their patients. Only physicians, in whose life, the body language and the personality of the doctor impacts the level of trust of the patient, still use lab coats consistently. This is because lab coats inspires confidence in the patients. They also give a sense of respect and authority irrespective of age.

The future of lab coats are now at an interesting juncture. Companies have taken it upon themselves to modify lab coats to make them more comfortable, more practical and more technologically adept. There are lab coats that pair to your smart phone and have thermal control. Scientists are working on a lab coat that will change colour when dangerous chemicals spill on it so as to warn the wearer.

Who would have thought such a small piece of clothing had so much going on for it?!

Author: Narendran Sairam (Facebook)