From Clodhoppers to Clogs

The colorful history of nursing shoes

Black, heeled calf length boots are on the left and teal clogs are on the right. The background is white

A typical 12-hour shift keeps nurses on their feet. On average, nurses take more than 9,000 steps a day while contending with hazards like slippery hospital floors, unidentified fluid spills and who knows what kind of germs.

It’s no wonder that nursing shoes, like so many other aspects of nursing practice, have undergone a dramatic evolution over the past two centuries.

From Barefoot to Power Shoe

Believe it or not, the first nurses — nuns of the 1300s — often wore no shoes, covering their bare feet with the long robes of their common dress. Some nuns wore sandals, which still left their feet vulnerable to parasitic diseases and foot ulcers.

The first true nursing shoes were probably worn in 1854 by Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War. Florence believed that nurses and the nursing profession needed to embody a certain look befitting the probity of the nursing role. Thus, nurses adopted black leather lace-up shoes with a flat leather sole and slightly arched spool heel.

During the Victorian era, these nursing shoes connoted power and status through the height of the shoe and the elevated heel. The black leather lace-up shoe may not have followed Nightingale’s strict guidelines for cleanliness, but the long tweed dresses nurses commonly wore probably helped to protect their shoes.

Birth of the Brand: “A Prescription for Comfort”

New manufacturing processes in the 18th and 19th century opened the door to mass production of goods.

Consumers now had more products to choose from, which led the United States to pass the Trademark Act in 1870, allowing companies to claim exclusive rights to use specific words, phrases, designs or even colors to identify their products and brands.

This coincided with the emergence of professional nurse training programs in the U.S., so some companies began using nurses in their marketing and advertising campaigns for shoes and foot-related products.

As early as 1888, an ad for Fastep Foot Powder showed nurses powdering their feet before donning their lace-up nursing shoes, with the headline proclaiming, “They know how to start the day right.”

In 1896, Krohn, Fechheimer & Co., later known as the United States Shoe Corp., launched the Red Cross shoe brand. This popular brand had no connection to the Red Cross organization, but it did make nursing shoes, and sometimes referred to nurses in its marketing campaigns.

By 1941, ads for the company’s “beautiful, perfect-fitting Red Cross shoes” boasted that they were “Preferred by America’s smart Nurses 3½ to 1” in a survey conducted by Registered Nurse magazine.

RN Career Events

A contemporary ad from Cleveland-based Holbrook’s Shoes proclaimed that its nursing shoe (an all-white elk four-eyelet perforated tie shoe, sporting a French heel) was “the favorite of nurses everywhere,” a “prescription for comfort” that offered nurses “new foot freedom.”

The White Shoe Phenomenon

Many nurses today start off wearing white nursing shoes on their first day of nursing school clinicals. However, until the 1920s, nursing shoes were typically black, not white. While the color white was a symbol of cleanliness, white shoes were too difficult to maintain in clinical service.

By the late ‘20s, new industrial tanning processes enabled shoemakers to more economically produce glossy white leather shoes. Meanwhile, improvements in shoe polish helped wearers keep the shoes sparkling clean.

By the start of World War II, nurses’ ability to keep their shoes immaculately white exemplified their dedication to the profession, completing the all-white uniform that marked nurses as symbols of pristine cleanliness and scientific sophistication.

The Clinic Shoe

From the 1930s until well into the ‘60s, the archetypal nursing shoe was the white lace-up Oxford with French heel. These shoes can often be seen in vintage Hollywood hospital movies that romanticized and inspired young women to go into the nursing profession.

One of the most popular and iconic brands was The Clinic Shoe, made by the Juvenile Shoe Corporation of America in St. Louis. Available in a variety of styles “for Young Women in White,” Clinic nursing shoes were noted for their comfort and practicality.

White Clinic shoes remained common for hospital RNs through the ‘70s, although they eventually shed the infamous French heel.

Even now, older nurses on social media still wax nostalgic about their first pair of white Clinic nursing shoes. Some nurses recall them fondly, while others call them “clodhoppers.”

Nurse and artist Therese Cipiti Herron made them the subject of a 2003 oil painting entitled The Clinic Shoe, part of a series focusing on recognizable symbols of the nursing profession that have disappeared with the move to scrubs and a more diverse array of footwear.

“Moc Toe”

Perhaps the most notorious “ugly” fashion trend that dashed through nursing corridors in the 1980s was the wedge heel moccasin-style lace-up nursing shoe from SAS (San Antonio Shoemakers). These “Moc Toe” shoes may have been more comfortable, but some nurses declared that they’d leave the nursing profession if they had to wear such ugly footwear.

Nursing Education

More recently, though, Millennials and Gen Z have made them hip. As SAS CEO Nancy Richardson remarked in a 2021 interview, “Once people have worn a really comfortable shoe, it’s hard to walk away from that.”

Clogs, Clogs, Clogs

In the ‘90s, clogs began to appear in hospital hallways across the United States. The most popular nursing clogs come from Dansko, a company started by husband-and-wife team Mandy Cabot and Peter Kjellerup, after they took a trip took to Amsterdam and found clogs that worked well for use on their horse farm.

Marketed as “anti-fatigue,” Dansko clogs feature a rocker bottom with a slightly raised heel that provides extra comfort. Some nurses swear by them.

A Dansko rival is the Italian shoemaker Calzuro, whose colorful professional clogs (originally developed for OR teams) are made of eco-friendly plastic that can be cleaned with bleach or even sterilized in a hospital autoclave at temperatures up to 273°F.

Athletic Shoes

Many of today’s nurses favor athletic shoes in a variety of styles. The growing popularity of sneakers and athletic trainers for nurses may have something to do with the increase in the number of men entering the profession.

“I’ve never really been super picky when it comes to my work shoes,” says travel nurse Nate Crnkovich, RN, echoing the sentiments of many male nurses. Crnkovich prefers the comfiest Nike or Adidas shoes he can find when he’s working long shifts in the ER, a place where white shoes are not welcome for obvious reasons.

The typical modern day athletic shoe has all the makings of a good nursing shoe: comfort, shock absorbency and durability. Brand loyalty may be another factor in the popularity of sneakers and athletic shoes: Like Crnkovich, many nurses favor shoes from familiar athletic shoe brands.

However, newer brands like Clove and BALA have developed lace-up athletic shoes specifically for the nursing market, with features like breathable fabric that can easily be cleaned.

Tik Tok Influencers

Some nurses still miss the formality and distinctiveness of the old white Oxford nursing shoe. Modern trends are now more often shaped by nurse “influencers” on popular social media platforms, who offer witty opinions on the perfect nursing shoe and the types of nurses who wear different styles.

Even if you don’t watch those TikTok videos of nurses “unboxing” their latest pair of nursing shoes and offering color commentary, some of your colleagues probably do, and whatever the popular nurses on the hospital floor are wearing on their feet will influence others.

If you talk to nurses about their footwear, it will become immediately clear that nursing shoes are more than just workwear. Shoes become part of who and what nurses are and how they’re perceived by the public. It’s no wonder that so many nurses have such strong feelings about them.

ERSILIA POMILIO, RN, MSN, PNP, is a pediatric nurse practitioner and the host/producer of the “Nurses and Hypochondriacs” podcast. She teaches writing through The Well Written Nurse.

In this Article: ,

Latest Articles

Experience the Digital Flip Mag

Flip through the pages of the latest Working Nurse magazine on your device.