The Patient Wore Prada

For reasons beyond my control, I’ve been spending time in one of Chicago’s great hospitals. It’s an out-patient clinic where people must change into gowns, receive therapy, and then go on their way.  The topics of conversation among these draped humans is quite narrow. The usual conversation starters, like “What do you do?” or “Heard any good doctor jokes lately?” seem out of place. Instead the ice-breaker among these strangers is the relative fashion merit of the gowns. These are basically green, blue or yellow-green cotton sheets with arm holes and twill tape laces for tying them closed. They can be worn with plunging necklines or plunging backs. Alternatively, they be tied closed for an A-line drape. There are only four design requirements for the gown: it must look attractive whether it is worn in the front or the back of the body, it must conceal at least 60% of the body, it must permit access to the entire body,  and it must withstand repeated washing in very hot water. The gown requires very few undergarments. Most people wear nothing but knickers. They accessorize with various footwear from street shoes and socks to sandals. The option to wear those hospital-issued booties with the little white traction bubbles on the bottom is attractive to many of us, especially because they come in a wider range of colors.  Other accessories include ‘do-rags’ for those with super short “fuzz-cuts,” the locker key with large numbered badge, and sometimes an visitor’s ID tag.

There are only two sizes of gowns: large and larger. The gowns are unisex allowing the shape of both male and female bodies to be attractively concealed. The large size gowns are knee-length, while the larger gown fall to the mid-calf. As one walks the untied gown gently sways with the body, while the tied version stays still, grounding the torso against the landscape of beige walls and painted doors. Because of the need to access the body while the gown is worn, a common practice is to leave the gown untied.  Since this results is an open back or an open front, a second gown, worn on top of the first and in the obverse direction, is often employed. The result is  even more coverage of the body than usual. As patients parade back and forth from changing room to therapy room, a sort of fashion runway is created with the appreciative audience noting how this particular model solved the problem of wearablity for this ungainly garment.

If ever there was a more pleasing minimalist design for outer wear, this is it. The gown derives from the wrap dress. [Wikimedia Commons] Wrap-dresses had been designed by Elsa Schiaparelli in the 1930s, and Claire McCardell in the 1940s. Her original ‘popover’ design became the basis for a variety of wrap-around dresses, including the hospital gown. Wrap dresses achieved their peak of popularity in the mid to late 1970s, and the design has been credited with becoming a symbol of women’s liberation in clothing. Wrap dresses experienced renewed popularity beginning in the late 1990s, Today they remain the design of choice for patients. At one point a clinic in Cleveland commissioned Diane von Furstenburg to modify her wrap dress design for use as a hospital gown. (Jio, Sarah“. Retrieved 30 May, 2014.)

The design challenge is not closed. There is still room for innovative gowns that offer orthodox women the opportunity for even more concealment, while providing libertines with even more exposure. The fashion world eagerly awaits the next collection.

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