What exactly does the white tradition symbolize for the hygiene profession?

March 1, 1996
Good girls wear white dresses on their wedding day as a symbol of purity. All of Doctor`s good girls wear white pants because ... well, just because. It`s tradition. The "white tradition."

Heidi Emmerling Jones, RDH, BS

Good girls wear white dresses on their wedding day as a symbol of purity. All of Doctor`s good girls wear white pants because ... well, just because. It`s tradition. The "white tradition."

In dentistry, the white tradition probably originated as a means to elevate us (those of us in the field) from them (everyone else). One could tell at a glance who was part of the team and who was an outsider. One could also tell at a glance that we were clean and pure.

As dentists attended seminars and hired practice management consultants, a new philosophy emerged: In order to relax apprehensive patients and to be more empathetic, dentists should adapt a more casual attire. Dentists could show the patient that they could relate.

However, hygienists still cling to wearing white pants. Is this our choice, or do hygienists continue wearing white because it is somehow expected? Maybe it`s a little bit of both.

An unwritten rule for the girls?

There is no doubt that hygienists are expected to wear white. The white tradition is a definite power and gender marker. This unwritten rule does not apply to anyone but female hygienists and assistants. Dentists don`t dress like assistants. Rarely do front-office employees dress like assistants. But female hygienists dress like assistants. Is it any wonder why the public often can`t tell us apart? The white tradition does not elevate our professionalism. Neither does it elevate assistants` professionalism. Maybe it`s time to examine whether the tradition is still valid. Maybe hygienists need to examine the nonverbal message that is sent by holding to the white tradition.

Why do hygienists take it as a given that white is the appropriate color to wear? Obviously, white pants are no more clean or pure than colored pants. However, we do have federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) mandates by which we must abide for our own safety. These rules stipulate that any garment that is exposed to biohazardous material (like blood and saliva) be provided and laundered by the dentist/employer at no cost to the hygienist/employee. Where I work, my employers provide gowns that extend from the neck to the calves. The gowns cover whatever street clothes I choose to wear underneath. Other offices provide scrubs (tops and bottoms) to all employees who work with patients - dentists, hygienists, and assistants.

The clean image: Washing white pants at home

So why do hygienists still wear white pants? Possibly because some employers are providing only tops for employees. One of my colleagues is concerned that her pants become contaminated at work. Therefore she chooses to wear white so she can bleach the pants when she takes them home and launders them.


We are not even supposed to leave the office with contaminated garments, let alone take them into our homes. My colleague holds to this reason in spite of the fact that OSHA has prohibited employees from laundering contaminated garments for years.

My colleague and her employer need to determine if her pants are actually being contaminated at work. If they are, as she feels, then the employer needs to provide and launder them as part of personal protective equipment mandated by OSHA. If they are not contaminated, then why the need for bleach?

Others would argue that white is the mark of professionalism. I disagree with this reason also. If white is so professional, why is the white tradition a non-issue for dentists (male or female) and male hygienists? They do not don white pants and cute tops. In spite of this, people do not consider dentists or male hygienists unprofessional, impure, or contaminated for ignoring the white tradition.

The color of one`s garment does not reflect one`s ability. When I wear my navy (or black, brown, green, or whatever) linen slacks to work it does not impair my judgment or my dexterity. My patients are no less comfortable with my work when I wear street clothes than if I were to deviate from my norm and wear skimpy, transparent whites.

Why not dress as the professionals we are than as subordinates? As licensed professionals and providers of direct care, hygienists are in a partnership with the dentist and the patient. I have worked with dentists whose dress ranged from scrubs to cowboy boots and jeans to upscale business attire. I am most comfortable taking the lead from the dentist and following suit.

Some of my more radical colleagues might argue that "following" the dentist`s lead is still allowing the dentist to determine what I wear and is, therefore, just as bad as wearing white. My colleagues make their own choices, as it should be. Just as white does not make one a professional, neither does wearing a specific style of clothing. However, our clothing plays a significant role in self-expression. One obstacle in our quest for autonomy is public perception. As long as the public (and, for that matter, the dental community) sees hygienists dressing like auxiliaries, they will assume that is our role and that we accept and endorse it. By dressing in a more autonomous manner, as dentists do, perhaps the public (and dental community) will literally see that we are indeed equal partners in oral health. Our appearance will be conveying the message that we work with the dentist instead of that we work for the dentist.

The white tradition restricts us. It binds us. It stifles us. We`ve outgrown it. Fashion designer Coco Chanel once remarked, "A woman is closest to being naked when she is well dressed." Of course, I`m not recommending that we scale nude (although it might be interesting). Rather, let`s liberate ourselves.

Let`s shed the white tradition and dress well.

Heidi Emmerling Jones, RDH, BS, is a freelance writer and practices dental hygiene in Sparks, Nevada.