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The Boston Globe

Business

Nurses trading in drab scrubs for fashionable workwear

Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Jill Caulfield (left) prefers to wear fashionable scrubs while at work.

HINGHAM - The models posed purposefully as a fan blew their hair and pink and purple stethoscopes gleamed under bright lights.

They accessorized with utility scissors and blood pressure cuffs instead of purses and bangles. And rather than runway couture, the women were showing off the latest lines of scrubs, the resolutely bland health care wear that is now getting a major makeover.

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The guiding force behind the glitzy photo shoot last week was Work ‘N Gear, a company better known as the go-to for overalls and construction boots. The Quincy firm has shifted its focus to the booming business of fashionable scrubs, which now account for more than 40 percent of the $1.5 billion scrubs market nationally.

To capitalize, Work ‘N Gear has launched a marketing onslaught, with fall catalogs and a new website dedicated to recasting the ill-fitting, utilitarian medical garments worn by hundreds of thousands of nurses, physicians, dentists, and medical students.

Work ‘N Gear hired a design guru to create Scrubology, a private label featuring colorful prints and tailored fits that are now sold alongside brands such as Med Couture and Koi that started the scrubs revolution. A Bohemian tribal pattern top may not ever make it to a Paris runway, but the triple stitching, floral screen prints, and flare pants definitely qualify as haute when it comes to hospital clothing.

Traditional scrubs are issued for free by some hospitals or can be bought for about $10 in specialty stores. But for fancier styles, employees are on their own, and some patterns can cost as much as $30 just for a shirt.

“There was a void in this market,’’ said Work ‘N Gear’s Lisa Waugh, who helped spearhead the Scrubology line and weighs in on every detail, from prints to fits. “These women want fashion forward, and it’s more about look than price.’’

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Over the past year, Work ‘N Gear dedicated more space in its own stores to these lucrative lines for women and also opened Scrubology boutiques inside 90 Sears and Kmart department stores across the country. Another 50 Scrubology shops are scheduled to open this fall, including several in the Boston area to take advantage of its huge hospital scene.

Home health care workers and hospital staff usually have some discretion in the selection of scrubs, but workers in operating suites and special-procedure rooms must wear hospital-laundered clothes that are stored in secure areas and not worn outside, to comply with national standards and infection control requirements. Massachusetts General Hospital’s guidelines for attire recommend that scrubs be “preferably solid color’’ because “some colors and patterns can be upsetting or even disorienting to certain populations of patients.’’

Jill Caulfield, a nurse at Mass. General, has firmly rejected plain freebies. In the past year, Caulfield, 26, has spent about $1,500 on 50 outfits from Med Couture, Koi, Scrubology, and other makers to wear during long shifts.

“The hospital scrubs are always too big or too small. I like having one that fits my body, and you can pick the color you want that goes with your personality. It makes it more fun,’’ she said. “I want to feel comfortable with what I have on for 12 hours straight.’’

Work ‘N Gear spent a year researching what women want for scrubs, holding focus groups with hundreds of nurses across the country, according to chief executive Anthony DiPaolo. It vetted names (“Vital Signs’’ and “Scrub Spirit’’ were among the rejects), and studied colors and styles. Every decision about the clothing line - from the types of fabric selected to the camera angles at the photo shoot - is carefully thought out.

In the studio shoot last week, a camera was positioned low to the ground so it captured the models’ chin lines.

“When we shoot up, it gives them a sense of authority. It makes them empowered, and that’s what the nurses want,’’ said Anthony Modano, vice president of design and marketing. “You really have to respect them. We want to bring fashion to them, but not make it look like Paris runway or goofy catalog.’’

Scrubology attempts to fill a niche by offering its bright prints and tailored fits at slightly lower prices - $18 to $26 - than its competitors. The brand’s tops are named after people in the Work ‘N Gear office: The “Jamie’’ V-neck and the “Jackie’’ mock neck come in an assortment of styles, including a concentric circle print designed by Waugh that she dubbed “The Circle of Life.’’

Some of the highest-end garments in the Koi line, made by a California designer, cost up to $32 each. For example, the $30 “Lindsey’’ pants (yes, they all have names), is among the best sellers with bungee cords around the ankle, key loops, and scissor pockets, among other features. It comes in colors such as Flamingo pink.

But higher-fashion hospital wear is not for everyone. Kate Barba, a clinical nurse specialist in Boston, is more of a scrubs traditionalist - she prefers hers to be blue.

“It’s quite the fashion world out there. But I think the solid blues are more professional-looking,’’ Barba said. “But it is an individualized choice.’’

Beth Keddy has developed a reputation as a trend-setter in the neonatal intensive care unit at Brigham & Women’s Hospital. Forty-two years into a nursing career, she decided to ditch her employer-issued blue scrubs and begin buying her own.

“They were too ratty-looking, too short. I just said it’s time for a change,’’ Keddy said. “They make them now so they don’t look like scrubs. They have paisley prints and are colorful. It’s just so uplifting.’’

Keddy has inspired other nurses on her floor to remake their work wardrobes, though she is shopping for herself less these days.

“I’m addicted,’’ Keddy said. “But I’m also headed towards retirement.’’

Jenn Abelson can be reached at abelson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jennabelson.

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