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Can Hospital Gowns Be Fabulous?

New line of off-the-rack, closed-in-the-back gowns set to hit hospital corridors

En español | Of all the indignities you have to endure as a hospital patient, one of the most humiliating is the ridiculous hospital gown that seems to have been designed to cover Hobbits, not full-grown adults.

Long the butt of jokes and complaints, traditional hospital gowns are short, drafty pieces of material that can barely be fastened, leaving your backside pretty much blowin' in the wind. They have about as much to do with covering the body as earrings have in covering ears.

But maybe things are starting to change.

The Cleveland Clinic recently unveiled its new prototype hospital gown, created with the help of internationally known fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg.

Von Furstenberg has done for the hospital gown what she first did in the 1970s for women's fashion: Design comfortable, wraparound apparel that looks good on everyone.

The unisex hospital gown she helped create has wraparound closure, a longer length and a wide V-neck to accommodate chest monitoring and stethoscopes. It comes in a variety of sizes and has a typical designer touch — a colorful graphic print that incorporates the Cleveland Clinic logo.

The new gown helps fulfill what a lot of patients told the Cleveland Clinic redesign committee they wanted — namely, something they wouldn't feel embarrassed or undignified wearing when family or friends came to visit.

Jeanne Ryan, who headed up the committee, said the original goal had been to improve patients' hospital experiences. "We wanted to provide people with some dignity. They come to the hospital, it's very stressful and then we ask them to take off their clothes. People said they feel exposed."

Ryan, a registered nurse who has worked at the hospital for nearly 30 years, said she initially thought this would be a simple project that took "six, maybe eight months."

Not quite. There were laborious discussions over material (not too thin, not too hot, not too scratchy), unisex colors (is mint green too girly?), quality of snaps, and durability during laundering.

More than three years and three prototypes later, Ryan says, they still need to make "some tweaks." The snaps need to be stronger; the 100 percent cotton material gets too wrinkled after laundering; and there's grumbling about some of the colors.

The committee had wanted gowns in different colors to denote different sizes, so nurses could quickly find a gown that would fit a patient. The small-size gown in yellow hasn't been too popular. "They think the yellow is too dingy," Ryan says, and the male patients aren't thrilled about wearing yellow at all.

The gowns currently are being worn by a select group of patients. Ryan estimates the hospital will collect feedback for another month, then make the final changes. The gowns are expected to become available to all patients in the Cleveland Clinic's Ohio facilities sometime next year.

The Cleveland Clinic isn't the first place to rethink gowns. In 1999, Hackensack University Medical Center introduced new hospital wear with the help of designer Nicole Miller, and some hospitals in the United Kingdom have recently introduced wraparound "modesty gowns."

Some people have even tried making more dignified gowns a law. In 1999, Missouri Rep. Sam Gaskill, a Republican, sponsored a bill requiring all licensed hospitals in his state to issue admitted patients a "dignity gown," which would completely cover them from the neck to the knees.

He introduced the bill after a hospital stay of his own, where he experienced the skimpy nature of the traditional hospital gown.

Unfortunately for patients everywhere, the bill made it out of committee but was never voted on.

Candy Sagon writes about health and nutrition for the AARP Bulletin.