Exposing hospital gowns

Bare bottoms, bare minimum


“Don’t let the gown get you down,” was the advice a 26-year-old gentleman with leukemia offered in a study investigating the psychosocial impact of hospital gowns on patients and providers.1 Patients were found to be resigned to their “uncomfortable,” “expos[ing],” “nightmare-[ish]” “uniform,” afraid to even ask to wear more dignifying attire for fear of seeming difficult to providers and potentially harming the therapeutic relationship; one 64-year-old woman with terminal cancer detailed, “I have my own pajamas at home, but I don’t bring them because you can’t wear them here … [wearing a gown] is really not fun, but hey, this is what [providers] have to do, so it’s what you have to do.”1-3

Figure 1. Graphic representation of ‘patient gown’ connotations

Research has consistently shown that patients are vulnerable to dehumanization and loss of identity in the hospital, often exacerbated by wearing the standard hospital gown.3-8 Case in point, a mixed-methods study revealed that hospital gowns may lead to an increased sense of exposure, discomfort, disempowerment, and embarrassment for patients during a period of potential vulnerability while undergoing medical intervention.8

Hospital gowns strip autonomy from individuals humbly coming to the hospital for help. The gown has become a linchpin of change, initiating the dehumanizing process of “person” to “patient.” One of the main problems with the hospital gown is its exposing nature, often made light of on the wards with the joke, “Do you know who invented the hospital gown?…See-more Hiney!” The joke continued in two Super Bowl LIII commercials for a large academic health care system and insurance provider in Pennsylvania, depicting a construction worker and businessman clad in hospital gowns, mooning their less-than-pleased coworkers, to inform patients of expanded insurance coverage, i.e., “completely covered.” Hospital gowns are also a source of comedic fodder on sitcoms, including “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” “Man with a Plan,” and “Carol’s Second Act.”

It is common knowledge that hospital gowns are flawed, but very little has been done to change them. Little is known about the origin of hospital gowns, and like their design, their history has many gaps. PubMed, Google, and Wikipedia yield no fruitful insight into the evolution of the hospital gown, and perhaps the best way to understand the hospital gown over time is to watch depictions of patients in television sitcoms, dramas, and movies, ranging from the days of black-and-white into the modern era, and view artistic depictions of hospitals across eras. Case in point, depictions of fourteenth century hospital wards in art show that all patients wore night shirts, under which they also wore some type of underclothing.9 By the end of the 1800s and beginning of the 1900s, pajamas for men became more common as hospital attire.9 Although it is not known who originally invented the traditional hospital gown, the original gown was designed around a century ago with an open back for use on patients admitted the night prior to surgery, who were sedated prior to transfer to the anesthetic room while half-asleep.10

In general, the most common reason that hospitals began to provide, require, or offer clothing to patients was to reduce infection and improve hygiene, as clothing can be ruined by leakage of bodily fluids from various examinations, treatments, and procedures.9 In addition, in certain settings, lifesaving measures require access to the naked body to allow equipment, like a defibrillator, to be connected to the patient; a gown can theoretically be removed quickly.9 For some reason along the way, the simple, open-backed “johnny” gown of the early 20th century became standard of care with minimal meaningful modifications in the last hundred years. One possible explanation for the persistence of the “johnny” gown is that in past eras of medicine, patients in gowns were expected to be bedbound for recovery, keeping their bare bottom under wraps, and this norm became the status quo. Today, ambulation is encouraged in patients as part of venous thromboembolism (VTE) prophylaxis but the gown design has fallen behind.

Dr. Christy Lucas, MD, is based in the Department of Pediatrics, UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh

Dr. Christy Lucas

Modern medicine emphasizes, values, and even advertises evidence-based medicine, patient-centered care, and high-quality care, yet the hospital gown stands as a stark contrast to this pledge to move forward as beacons of change. Hospital gowns have fallen outside of the scope of evidence-based research.11 One may ask why the gown remains decades behind modern medicine, and it appears that this apathy stems from (1) accepting “medical tradition” and choosing to overlook the flaws of the current hospital gown, and (2) believing that changing the hospital gown would cost money, affronting an institution’s almighty bottom-line. Still, several institutions have attempted change, including Hackensack University Medical Center partnering with Cynthia Rowley and Nicole Miller (1999), Cleveland Clinic partnering with Diane von Furstenberg (2010), and Henry Ford Health System of Detroit’s “Model G” gown (2016).12-15

In spite of these efforts to revamp the hospital gown at academic medical centers, change has been neither long lasting nor widely disseminated. Traci Lamar, a professor at the North Carolina State University College of Textiles reasoned that, “There are number of pressures in the hospital environment that influence what they purchase and when they purchase. Cost management, inventory management, storage space. ... There’s more value coming with the apparel item if it also becomes something that replaces or enhances other equipment that’s used in the hospital environment. Like a gown that can also keep an eye on your blood pressure or measure your heart rate.”15

The hospital gown remains a poor attempt at proper attire for human beings, with the most similar evolutionary relative being a hairdresser’s cape. Taken a step further, functionally the hospital gown is most similar to a prison uniform. Although this may seem bold and sensational, one must stop and think about it, considering the parallels. When individuals are admitted to the hospital, they exchange their clothing for a hospital gown, so that they can be easily identified as a “patient” and remain safe in the hospital. When individuals are sentenced to prison, they exchange their clothing for a uniform, so that they can be easily identified as a “prisoner” and remain safe in jail. The problem is, more time, money, and effort has gone into designing prisoners’ garments, who expect a loss of autonomy, than designing patients’ garments, who should never expect a loss of autonomy.

Prison uniforms are designed with safety in mind, ensuring the absence of potential ligatures or improvised weapons. The United Nations even passed an amendment to its Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners in 2015, prohibiting humiliating clothing and requiring every prisoner who is “not allowed to wear his or her own clothing” to “be provided with an outfit of clothing suitable for the climate and adequate to keep him or her in good health.”16 They also stipulated that prisoners’ clothing could not be degrading or humiliating and was mandated to “be clean and kept in proper condition”.16 Even more compelling, a physician was bequeathed the task of inspecting, and advising the prison director on “the suitability and cleanliness of the prisoners’ clothing and bedding.”16 However, there are no standard minimum rules for hospital patients’ clothing. Hospital gowns have been described as “threadbare,” “one-size-fits-none,” “stained,” and “drafty,” antithetical to both hygiene and the hospital climate – far from “proper condition” (See Figure 1).1

Where are the standard minimum rules for hospital gowns? Patients have admittedly wondered, “What happened to the person who wore this gown before I did?” or worse, “Who died in this gown?” Even more, the current hospital gown can unintentionally put a patient in harms’ way, posing a fall risk for patients with petite frames overwhelmed by the bulk of the gown and also inhibiting fast access to the chest for placement of defibrillation pads in a code. Ironically, prison uniforms have the main things patients have requested: bottoms, modesty, multiple sizes, and … color!1-3

Although jailhouse orange or stripes are unlikely to be high fashion in the hospital, it is important to consider that, through indifference about the current hospital gown, institutions are teaching that it is acceptable for patients to wear this dehumanizing garment analogous to a prison uniform, except less colorful and more exposing. The hospital gown has persisted under the myth of medical tradition, masking the fact that there is neither evidence for the current hospital gown design nor data to support its functional success for patients or providers.3,12,14 Silence speaks volumes, and patients are taught to expect and accept a loss of dignity without questioning this archaic aspect of medical culture. Patients, nurses, and physicians do not challenge the status quo because the hospital gown “is the way it has always been done.” Perceived added-cost and medical tradition have further perpetuated the current open-backed hospital gown because meaningful change would require money.

Dr. Cheryl Dellasega, MD, is based in the Department of Humanities, Penn State College of Medicine, Hershey.

Dr. Cheryl Dellasega

With that said, “double gowning,” the method hospitals have used to combat lunar eclipses in the hallways and provide a semblance of dignity to patients, is already costing hospitals more money, costs that can be reduced by creating an evidence-based, patient-guided, provider-approved design. As Mike Forbes, the product designer and licensing associate for the Model G gown, argued, “By using two, you’re purchasing two gowns because one doesn’t do the job, which costs money. … If you’re washing twice as many gowns as you need, you’re spending twice as much money as you need on laundry.”17

Thus, improvements can be made without breaking the bank and may even save hospitals money in the long run. For instance, a hospital administrator can order more colors or styles of hospital gowns and bottoms to give patients a choice of what they would prefer to wear: a small piece of autonomy in an environment where minimal autonomy exists. A physician or nurse can not only permit, but also encourage, a patient to wear his or her own attire within reason, for example, a loose-fitting t-shirt and sweatpants from home or pajama pants under a hospital gown. More complex solutions could include a community design contest for a medical center’s new hospital gown print, or even bolder, a community design contest for a medical center’s new inpatient attire. Above all, patients need to know that hospitals and providers care about what patients wear in the hospital. As a terminally ill patient suggested, “maybe all administrators and office staff should have to spend one day in a gown. …They advertise this: ‘We always put the patient first.’ Okay, so then I guess you have to put your money where your mouth is.”3

This new decade offers the opportunity to give patients a sense of dignity back and make concerted, evidence-based efforts towards meaningful and sustainable change in patient attire, be it purchasing more colorful and modest gown options in the present or total redesign in the future. The financial cost may seem burdensome, but the reward would be immensely bountiful. It is time to stop making hospital gown–clad patients’ exposed bottoms the butt of the joke, and the only way to change the punchline is to change the hospital gown. Patients deserve more than the bare minimum and a bare bottom, so hospitals must consider putting their money where their mouth is.

Dr. Lucas is based in the department of pediatrics, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. She has a provisional utility patent pending for a novel patient gown. You can contact her at [email protected]. Dr. Dellasega is based in the department of humanities, Penn State University, Hershey.


1. Lucas C et al. “Don’t let the gown get you down: How patients and providers perceive hospital gowns.” Abstract published at Hospital Medicine 2019, Mar 24-27, National Harbor, Md., Abstract 322.

2. Lucas C and Dellasega C. “You don’t have to be dying to do comfort measures: Patients’ and physicians’ perceptions of inpatient attire.” Abstract published at ACP Internal Medicine 2019, Apr 11-13, Philadelphia, Abstract.

3. Lucas C and Dellasega C. Finding common threads: How patients, physicians, and nurses perceive the patient gown. Patient Exp J. 2020;7(1):51-64.

4. Detsky A and Krumholtz H. Reducing the trauma of hospitalization. JAMA. 2014;311(21):2169-70.

5. Krumholz H. Post-hospital syndrome – an acquired, transient condition of generalized risk. N Engl J Med. 2013;368(2):100-2.

6. Wellbery C and Chan M. White coat, patient gown. Med Humanit. 2014;40(2):90-6.

7. McDonald E et al. Inpatient attire: An opportunity to improve the patient experience. JAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(11):1865-67.

8. Cogan N et al. Mixed methods study exploring the impact of the hospital gown on recovery and wellbeing: Implications for policy and practice. Lancet. 2019. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(19)32829-6.

9. Bergbom I, Pettersson M, and Mattsson E. Patient clothing – practical solution or means of imposing anonymity? J Hosp Med Manage. 2017;3(22):1-6.

10. Who invented the hospital gown? Interweave Healthcare. Accessed Mar 30, 2020.

11. Gordon L and Guttmann S. A user-centered approach to the redesign of the patient hospital gown. Fashion Practice. 2013;5(1):137-51. doi: 10.2752/175693813X13559997788961.

12. Limbong A. “Can a Patient Gown Makeover Move Hospitals to Embrace Change?” NPR. 2018 Feb 11. Accessed Mar 26, 2020.

13. Schiro A. “Patterns: Hospital Style.” New York Times. 1999 June 29. Accessed Mar 26, 2020.

14. Luthra S. “Hospital Gowns Get a Makeover.” The Atlantic. 2015 Apr 4. Accessed Mar 26, 2020.

15. Tien E. “Hospital Gowns Get a Life.” New York Times. 1998 Oct 18. Accessed Mar 26, 2020.

16. McCall-Smith K. United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Nelson Mandela Rules). Int Leg Materials. 2016;55(6),1180-205.

17. Green C. “Updated hospital gowns a good investment, execs say, restore ‘dignity.’ ” Healthcare Finance. 2015 Aug 3. Accessed Apr 1, 2020.

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