Clothing norms as markers of status in a hospital setting: A Bourdieusian analysis

Health (London). 2014 Sep;18(5):526-41. doi: 10.1177/1363459314524800. Epub 2014 Apr 1.


This article uses a Bourdieusian framework to understand the importance of clothing norms for symbolizing and reproducing social, as well as professional, hierarchy in hospitals. Using data from participant observation, it examines how a complex yet informal dress code has emerged at a community hospital in the Northeastern United States, in a setting where very few formal guidelines exist on how to dress. By conceptualizing professionals as holders of various types of capital (economic, cultural, and symbolic), this article expands previous research which considered clothing only as a marker of professional identity. The findings demonstrate (1) how clothing norms are used in subtle, but purposeful, ways to reflect varying degrees of cultural and economic capital and (2) how these complex norms also reflect professional boundaries in medical authority (symbolic capital), which is important during critical moments where clothing can quickly signal who can take control. The discussion borrows Bourdieu's concepts of habitus and field to explain why subordinates subscribe to these clothing norms, in the absence of a formal organizational dress code.

Keywords: Bourdieu; hospital; participant observation; status; uniforms.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Anthropology, Cultural
  • Clothing*
  • Female
  • Hospitals*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • New England
  • Social Identification*