Once again, I’ve been spending the recent ‘makes’ part of my life producing scrubs for the charity Scrub Hub. As I’ve mentioned before, this charity has been providing scrubs and other kit and kaboodle for hospitals and care homes that have been struggling to get them during the Covid-19 pandemic. It feels like I’ve made hundreds of these simple trousers and tunics since I started volunteering last July. However, I have recently realised that this is not my first foray into the world of hospital and healthcare attire. As with so many of my idle thoughts, this musing took me down some rabbit holes of past lives and new knowledge that I will now share with you in a somewhat condensed form. It’s time for jojomakes, hospital style.
The Comedy of Errors – The Teenage Angst Edition
One of my first ever attempts at anything to do with costume was a very brief and butchered version of The Comedy of Errors.
This Shakespearean comedy, set in the Greek city of Ephesus, centres around the mishaps and misidentifications of two sets of identical twins, the well-to-do Antipholus brothers and the Dromio brothers who serve them. The original play is a hilarious trip through slapstick comedy, false accusations, and a bit of flirting thrown in for good measure. Naturally though, this was all a bit too mundane for an A level drama class.
My fellow angsty teenagers and I decided to set our adaptation in a mental health facility, and not a very pleasant one at that. The two Antipholuses were no longer two identical twins, but the two halves of a patient being treated for schizophrenia and there was only one Dromio attending to his care. The Courtesan character was transformed into an extremely inappropriately dressed nurse. And the character of Nell was transformed from a kitchen maid and wife of one of the Dromios, into a very sexually charged patient in a customised hospital gown with an extremely plunging neckline.
I’m sure it all made perfect sense at the time.
My role was to design, source, and produce the costumes for the piece. I also had to give a short presentation to the examiner about my design concept and making process. Looking at the photos from this, my first foray into the world of costume design and construction, my initial instinct is to nitpick. My eye is drawn to the shoddy stitching and I cringe at the simple designs. But, if I’m honest, I’m still quite giddy about what this tiny piece of theatre, in a cramped classroom in a small secondary school in the northwest of England, that approximately ten people watched, ended up becoming.
No matter how deeply I try to delve into my memory, I’m can’t retrieve the plot of this production from the archives of my life. A look through the older files on my laptop brought me to a very basic costume plot that reveals a few clues. Gems like “Attempts to re-tie Antipholus 2’s strait jacket as he attacks him” and “1 canvas strap to tie around Antipholus 1’s stool to strangle him” suggest some violence was involved.
I do, on the other hand, remember the costumes reasonably well. I was studying for my A levels in 2008, which was around the time that Tim Burton was on a merry romp through such films as Corpse Bride, Sweeney Todd and Alice in Wonderland. Like any other teenager with an inclination towards the more gothic aesthetic, I was a big fan of Burton’s films and his style around this time. They certainly played an unmistakable role in my earliest attempts at designing stuff and dressing myself. To this day, I favour the monochrome look with a small splash of colour. I’ve grown out of the more impractical aspects of my teenage style, but I still dye my hair black, wear black leather accessories with silver skulls and spikes, and worship at the altar of black eyeliner on a daily basis. I’m not that keen on change.
The hospital workers in this production wore straightforward NHS staff staples. Dromio sported a set of grey scrubs and Nurse Courtesan donned a classic tunic combined with some non-standard issue fishnet tights. On the backs of these garments, I printed bright red logos that referred to the various wings within this dodgy care facility. These were named after locations in the original play, namely the inn called the Centaur, and a house called the Phoenix. We’d clearly become so removed from the original text that we needed subtle clues like this to remind the examiner we knew this was meant to be based on a Shakespearean play.
The real pieces of costume trickery involved in this production were the straitjackets worn by the two halves of Antipholus. In my head these looked incredible. Unfortunately, I was a tad underwhelmed when I looked back over the photos of these costumes. They were a bit more on the bland side of things than I remembered. But, giving my eighteen-year-old-self the break she deserves, I can see this was a lot to ask of my sewing and logistical skills given my knowledge and experience at the time.
The two straitjackets had to restrain the arms of the two Antipholuses enough that they could struggle against the straps without them bursting open but also incorporate a sneaky mechanism that the actors could use to free themselves and wreak havoc later in the show. The two Antipholuses also needed to be bound together in a convincingly tight yet easily escapable way as the curtain rose on this theatre of hormonal horrors. This kind of intricate costume-based brainteaser would be challenging for me now, despite having a lot more unusual and mostly useless costume knowledge in my arsenal.
The solution I came up with was to attach tubes that covered the actors’ hands and tapered into straps to the end of each sleeve. These straps ran around the actors’ backs and buttoned to the opposite hip to restrain them. I cut a small slit in the fabric that covered each hand, just large enough for the actors to get their fingers through and unbutton themselves at the crucial moment. As you can see from the very low-quality photos, this was a messy piece of work, but it was a relatively straightforward and effective solution to the costume conundrum. I’d certainly do a better job making these costumes today, but my younger self definitely deserves praise for these efforts. Well done little one, well done.
I put almost as much effort into my outfit for the presentation to the examiner as I did to my design efforts for the show itself. I remember spending a long time agonising over which outfit made me look like a ‘real’ designer, whatever that means. Although I can’t remember what I eventually wore, I’d be willing to bet a decent chunk of my bank balance on it being a black pair of skinny jeans and a red and black shirt with metal bits on it. I’m nothing if not predictable.
My A level Theatre Studies results tell a clear picture of my strengths and weaknesses in this artistic pursuit. I scored 100% for my costume-based efforts and secured a failing grade for my dismal attempt at acting. To be fair, our teacher gave me no lines and cast me in the classic drama student role of Tree and Other Pieces of Background Scenery, which I suspect he just couldn’t be bothered to build. I was screwed from curtain up on that one.
I may have hung up my costume cape now, but I can still appreciate the achievements of my more youthful and artistically exuberant self. She had passion for the subject and produced a pleasingly spooky piece of costume design that I look back on very fondly and with a sizeable chunk of pride.
My other sewing project that centred around hospital clothing was for a World War One exhibition in Cambridge called Keep the Home Fires Burning. Quite a contrast to angsty teenage Shakespeare. As well as your classic exhibition models, photos, paintings etc. this event also featured several people dressed up in attire of the day, including some wounded soldiers wearing uniforms known as hospital, or convalescent, blues.
Check out this excellent post from the Wellcome Library Blog for a more thorough account of the significance of this uniform. I will simply share the aspects of this article that I found most interesting and talk a bit about my experience of making a set of hospital blues.
Hospital blues were the standard uniform worn by wounded soldiers of non-officer rank during World War One. The ensemble consisted of blue trousers and lounge-jacket, a shirt, and a red tie. They were made in a small selection of sizes intended to cover all shapes and sizes of soldier. As with most attempts at standardised sizing, the garments often fit very badly, which is why you see images and paintings (like the one below) of soldiers wearing hospital blues with the sleeves and trousers cuffs rolled up with big chunks of white lining clearly showing.
The blues served multiple purposes. As the soldiers often arrived at hospital facilities in filthy military uniform covered in dirt and blood, changing them into hospital blues was a way of keeping the place clean. The bright blue garments also ensured there was a clear and visible distinction between hospital staff and patients. Finally, military superiors believed that instating a uniform for the recovering soldiers would maintain discipline and discourage poor discipline and insubordination.
The first thing that struck me as odd about this uniform was the choice of fabric. These blue suits were made of flannel. I had not worked with flannel much before making this suit and it was an interesting experience. I don’t remember it being particularly difficult to work with, but it was totally different to any fabric I’d used to make a suit jacket or pair of trousers before. Suit fabric usually presses nicely and holds its shape well, whereas the blue flannel was more malleable and (for want of a better word) floppy.
I have to admit, I don’t know what the laundry situation was for hospitals back in the day. Whatever the case may have been, I can’t imagine these suits held up particularly well when they were washed and passed around multiple soldiers of different statures. As someone who has washed their fair share of weird and wonderful costumes, I feel confident in asserting that these garments would have shrunk, warped, and become extremely misshapen after a few trips to the hospital’s launderette.
Aside from the fabric, the detail that I found most intriguing while researching this subject is a well-established contentious topic in the world of clothing.
My readers who wear clothing designed with women in mind will already know where I’m going with this. If you fall into this category, you’ve probably been involved in and witnessed many conversations that followed the same script.
Person A: “I love your dress”
Person B: “Thanks. It has pockets!”
Person A: “Oh my gosh!”
*Harmonised cries of exultation*
Clothing designed for women is oftentimes either woefully short of pockets or only features pockets you can barely fit a single key in, never mind an entire set.
This is the case even with garments that have a very clear equivalent designed for men, that serve the exact same purpose. Like jeans. It astounds me how much stuff Husband can fit in the front pockets of his jeans compared to the paltry pockets of my almost identical pairs. This is not a merely matter of differences between brands either. Husband and I each own a pair of slim fitting Levi jeans, which are admittedly cut differently to fit our different physiques, but for some reason the front pockets of his Levis are several inches deeper than mine.
Husband can fit both our phones, a wallet, a set of keys, a handkerchief, a few dog biscuits, and a roll of dog poo bags in his front pockets and sit down quite comfortably. I can’t even hope to fit this amount of detritus in mine, let alone sit down without getting savagely impaled in the hip by my phone, before it falls out of the laughably shallow container, I am loathed to call a pocket. It falls so dramatically short of the function of a pocket that I don’t really feel it earns the title.
And don’t give me that nonsense about women not needing pockets because they always carry handbags. I’m afraid that’s just a basic misunderstanding of causality. Maybe we wouldn’t have to resort to toting an extra item if our clothes were appropriately equipped and fit for purpose. Why the frilly heck must I be forced to acquire an entirely separate article to carry the necessary tools required for the simple act of taking my dog for a walk?! Why, I ask you?!
My pocket-based hissy fit was further fueled this week by a short passage in the book Clothes: Pleasures of Life Series by James Laver. I’m absolutely not suggesting we look to this book as a shining beacon of knowledge or a source of tips for achieving gender equality. Even by the standards of 1952, when it was first published, it is bursting with brazen sexism. There’s enough of this nonsense for a full blog post/rant just in the ten-page introduction so I will restrict myself to two quotes and leave it at that:
“A woman who is not in the fashion is either too poor to afford it, too stupid to understand it, or has thrown up the sponge [ye olde speak for ‘given up’]. To be in fashion is to have built at least the foundation of psychic peace”
“No doubt there are high-minded women who despise such pleasures [being in fashion], but they are a small majority and, by what can be gathered from their writings and speeches, they are not conspicuously happy. The majority of women, undeterred by the reformers, unimpressed by the moralists, uninfluenced even by doctors, insist on being in the fashion and find a large portion of their happiness in the knowledge (or at least the illusion) [burn!] that they are so.”
Rampant sexist bullshit aside, this book does make some reasonable points about the purpose of clothing. The author posits that there must have been a reason our ancestors decided to cover their bodies with bits of cloth and animal skins:
“The desire to protect oneself against the weather undoubtedly played some part in the development of clothes . . . Some writers declare that a desire to protect oneself against the bites of insects was of more importance. Even more vital was the growing need for pockets.”
Pockets! Even this pretentious pillock could see the importance of functional pockets. He’d probably suggest putting them in women’s clothing was some kind of vagina metaphor, but he could, at the very least, see the value in the pocket as a way of carrying shit about and still having two hands available for other activities. Such as penning a book that will make you look very silly in seventy years time.
Anyway, let’s escape this extremely tangential tangent and get back to the point. I was bewildered to discover that hospital blues didn’t have pockets. A Jacket and a pair of trousers designed to be worn by men without pockets. How could this possibly be?
Firstly, it required less fabric and therefore less cash, which was a big deal during wartime. Additionally, in a hospital setting, men weren’t in the position to use pockets as they would in civilian life. The soldiers that were stuck in hospital weren’t allowed to carry money with them and or regularly taking a jolly to the theatre so didn’t need anywhere to stash their tickets.
It may sound like an insignificant detail of little concern to a solider dealing with far greater problems, such as PTSD or suddenly finding themselves with fewer limbs than they used to have. But tiny kicks in the teeth will eventually add up and leave you feeling totally toothless. The absence of pockets would be a casual and consistent reminder that the wearer’s life was less liberated than that of the average civilian’s. The decision not to include pockets admittedly saved money, but also conveyed what other people with more power thought the wearer should be doing in these items of clothing. The wearer just had to live with it, even if they didn’t agree with the assessment of their needs.
Whether you’re a 21st century women struggling to fit a smart phone in your jeans pocket or a wounded soldier feeling disempowered by the total absence of something you’ve been deemed to no longer require, wearing clothing that doesn’t meet your needs is frustrating on a good day and demeaning on a crap one.
Hospital blues appear to have been quite a contradiction caught up in a few items of clothing. On the one hand, the bright blue suit combined with white shirt and red tie is a not especially subtle nod to the red, white, and blue on the Union Jack and a reminder of the king and country that the brave soldiers wearing these uniforms had all fought for.
However, the cartoonish white turn-ups, ill-fitting nature, and lack of basic features like pockets also suggests this uniform failed to preserve the dignity of the wearer, when it was potentially at its most fragile.
All that being said, my experience of making hospital blues was a pleasant one. Unfortunately, the only photos I have of the costume I made are rather blurry and don’t show the results of my labours as well as I’d like. You’ll just have to believe me when I tell you they looked delightful and historical accuracy meant it didn’t matter if they weren’t a perfect fit. I’m certainly not planning on trading in my modern pajamas made of stretchy jersey and featuring an elasticated waist for this two-piece flannel suit. I can, however, think of worse things than hospital blues to wear while spending the majority of your day in bed.
I hope you enjoyed this circuitous trip from a Shakespearean comedy set in Greece to the British hospitals of World War One, via a detour through my teenage years and an angry tangent about ill-equipped clothing. This post may have gotten away from me at times, but I thank you for sticking with me if you’ve made it this far and offer congratulations if you’ve reached the end without feeling too lost or travel sick.
The Comedy of Errors Wikipedia page
The ‘Convalescent Blues’ in Frederick Cayley Robinson’s ‘Acts of Mercy’ blog post by William Schupbach for the Wellcome Library
Wounded and sick men gathered outside a hospital painting by Frederick Cayley Robinson (1920) Wellcome Images (via Wikipedia)
Clothes: Pleasures of Life Series by James Laver