The white coat has been synonymous with doctors for more than a century, but the reality is that doctors wear a variety of clothing depending on where they work and what they do.
For centuries, doctors wore no special garments. But an increased focus on hygiene toward the end of the 19th century led to the rise of the white lab coat as standard attire for doctors. In addition to keeping blood and other bodily fluids off the doctor's clothing, the coat was practical, with deep pockets to hold examination instruments.
While many doctors still wear the white coat, conventional thinking on its role in hygiene has changed. As of June 2009, the American Medical Association has recommended that hospitals ban doctors from wearing the coats, saying they can harbor potentially dangerous bacteria and contribute to the spread of infection.
Doctors who work in hospitals and who regularly perform surgeries and other medical procedures often wear surgical scrubs. Though they are standard today, surgical scrubs weren't commonplace in operating rooms until the 1940s.
Doctors in private practice usually dress as anyone in an office setting would. Doctors need to wear clothes that look professional but that are also functional. Wearing a suit wouldn't be practical, but wearing jeans or shorts may cause patients to doubt the doctor's credibility.
Male doctors often wear ties either with or without a white lab coat. While suit coats are not practical for doctors seeing patients, a tie gives the air of professionalism and credibility. However, recent research has shown ties can be a source of infection-causing pathogens. A 2004 study of doctors' neckties at New York Hospital Medical Center Queens in Flushing, New York, found nearly half contained at least one micro-organism known to cause disease.