How Lab Coats Became a Dying BreedS

Lab coats: they're white, mostly plain, boxy. Functional, and ultimately sartorially boring. But ask any doctor or lab tech about their lab coat and they will chat up a storm. Often about how they can't wait to ditch them—if they haven't already.

Lab coats were never meant to be pretty; doctors started wearing them around the turn of the 20th century for the scientific cred. Until then, physicians were associated with quackery, so any association with hard science was desirable.

And surprisingly enough, it works. We want cardiologists and E.R. docs to look official and brainy. It's comforting. A 2004 study showed that 56 percent of people surveyed thought doctors should wear coats.

But that doesn't necessarily means the doctors themselves agree. Dr. Robyn Heister, for example, is an emergency room physician in San Diego. She hates lab coats. "I never wear them in the E.R. because I hate the fit. But I know I should because I still get told a million times a shift that I'm too young to be a doctor (which, by the way is SO not true) or people assume I'm the nurse."

How Lab Coats Became a Dying Breed

She's on the hunt for an attractive and comfortable version. She's considering Koi's Michela model. Or maybe she should look for inspiration from TV M.D. Ben Casey, who sported some interesting asymmetrical styles in the '60s (the elder doctor seems to be advocating for his more traditional coat here).

She probably won't quit them altogether, though. Not after yet another lost stethoscope. Carrying tools is, in fact, a big reason why many doctors wear lab coats. "It makes it easy to carry stuff around like a stethoscope, pens, pads, ophthalmoscope," says Dr. Melvin Ross, a cardiologist in Pembroke Pines, Florida. It also protects clothes against germy patients and whatever fluids might be hurled in his direction.

Speaking of which, the next time you visit with an MD, you might want to bring some extra Tide just in case. It's crucial that a physician regularly wash his coat (which Dr. Ross does religiously). While the American Medical Association has stopped short of banning them outright, some institutions have already exiled the white coats for being serious germ risks. The Scottish National Health Service outlawed them 2008; medical professionals there must wear color-coded scrubs. The Mayo Clinic requires business attire and forbids lab coats.

And it's not just individual hospitals or even countries; entire medical fields have done away with lab coats over the years. Remember that study that showed we want our doctors in their dress whites? Only 24 percent of doctors agreed, and only 1 in 8 actually wears them. That low number might partly be influenced by pediatricians. "Lab coats scare kids!" a pediatrician in Marin County, California, told me. So she and her fellow kid doctors never wear them.

Dentistry is another medical field where lab coat enthusiasm has waned. Nava Fathi, a dentist in Santa Clara County, California told me: "My husband and I wear scrubs to work... Lab coats are "out" in dentistry; most clinicians wear scrubs and/or wear the lab coats ONLY for consultations (they don't wear them when they're doing dentistry)."

Oh, and one last insider tip for the next time you end up in the ER: you see a doctor in a short lab coat? He or she is a medical student. Who is still a perfectly trustworthy care provider! But now you know the "secret" code: you don't graduate to a long coat until you've finished your medical training.

So what does this hidden language of lab coats teach us? Everyone, even those proclaiming to be uninterested in fashion, carefully considers their sartorial choices. Because they know that no piece of clothing is purely functional.

Uniform is a weekly column exploring the relationship between geeks, fashion and fashionable geeks.

Images: Conor Lawless/Flickr under Creative Commons license; TVAcres