A plea for the return of the classic bed jacket for patients

Hospital patients make an immediate trade that none of us want to make. The non-negotiated trade goes like this: We’ll take away (or, in some cases, cut off) your own nice clothes, toss them in this plastic sack, and in exchange, we’ll let you wear this shapeless, backless hospital gown and some goofy-looking booties while you’re here.

This is a trade designed for hospital workers, not for patients. But herein I launch my one-woman campaign to consider a revisit to the timeless yet under-appreciated garment called the bed jacket in order to combat the hideousness of those much-hated hospital gowns.

Journalist Constance Grady, a culture writer for Vox, asks:

“Have you ever seen a bed jacket? It’s basically a bathrobe with the bottom part cut off. It’s the dowdiest piece of clothing you’ll ever see.”

But as you can tell from the images I’ve posted above (just six of the 37 bed jackets in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute in New York City), these delicious garments are anything but dowdy.

In fact, isn’t it time to resurrect this once-popular standard of the woman’s boudoir? Wouldn’t bed jackets be just perfect for patients during longer hospital stays, a welcomed dress-up addition to the saggy hospital gown wardrobe?

Wearing such a gown merely adds to the sense of helplessness inherent in being a dependent hospital patient, like waiting for staff to help us into the shower so we can wash our hair and feel human again. It’s bad enough to feel sick, but do we have to look so awful, too? And as one of the patients explains in the Ward & Robe video* at the end of this post: “I don’t feel like myself wearing this.”

I compare this un-showered feeling to that sense of coming back to life after being in bed at home with a horrible flu bug, when merely washing your face and getting dressed in clean clothes can make you feel instantly a bit better. Many of us know that when we look like hell, we feel like hell.

Hospital gowns don’t help.

At one time, the bed jacket was a commonly seen item among almost all socioeconomic classes. In the 1800s, the term bed jacket referred to a piece of clothing that was loose-fitting, waist or hip length and worn by ordinary women as an everyday working garment. It was often fastened with pins, not buttons, which allowed for fit flexibility during different stages of a woman’s life – like pregnancy.

Later on in the early 20th century, bed jackets began to be worn more often in the bedroom. The American First Lady Mamie Eisenhower was said to stay in bed until noon wearing her pink bed jacket (like this 1960 jacket of wool and silk → designed by Elizabeth Arden, now in the Eisenhower National Historic Site), with a pink ribbon holding back her hair, in the pink bedroom that she used as her personal command centre while directing each day’s White House schedule.

Bed jackets were also designed to be seductively feminine with lacy or sheer fabrics back then. In movies, they were worn by that era’s most glamorous stars, lounging in their romantically elegant silk or satin bedrooms (just like the bedrooms we all have now, right?)

One of the most famous of those elegant bed jackets was the one worn by Hollywood star Joan Crawford. Her role as Mildred Pierce in the movie of the same name had garnered her a Best Actress nomination for the 1945 Academy Awards. But after a two-year absence from the big screen, she was worried that her rival Ingrid Bergman would win the Oscar that evening for her performance in The Bells of St. Mary’s instead. Joan decided to remain at home with the “flu” that evening, rather than attend the official awards ceremony and risk the prospect of being publicly passed over. But just in case, she had her makeup and stylist crew on call, and when she did in fact win, the press were on hand in her bedroom to record her acceptance speech from bed, where of course, she was wearing her exquisite silk and lace bed jacket.

And that’s the kind I want to be wearing for my next hospital stay!

Although it is still possible to buy modern bed jackets (I spotted some online starting at about $30, most of them looking like poofy polyester ski jackets), these would not help to take my mind off those awful hospital gowns. I’ve now got my sights set on finding a vintage chenille one. . .

NURSES’ STRESS ALERT:  I can tell that my nurse friends are already rolling their eyes at this outrageous concept. 

Nurses generally like hideous hospital gowns because these gowns are impervious to vomit, blood or other messy bodily fluid stains. Their sturdy, one-size fits all style (and I use that word style cautiously) makes them easy to whip off and on for quick patient-related tasks. But even if we couldn’t bring back the elegance of a Joan Crawford bed jacket while in hospital, I wish we could have cozy, washable and truly beautiful jacket versions to wear while we’re recuperating back at home afterwards.

And in the meantime, why can’t we have hospital gowns that look more like THESE? * 

or this? *

Ward & Robes are creating stylish hospital gowns for teens in partnership with Starlight Children’s Foundation Canada. #WardRobes4Teens

Marjorie Hillis was the editor of Vogue magazine in 1936, when she wrote a great little advice book called Live Alone and Like It – still, by the way, as useful today as it was back then. It’s addressed to what was then a new social category emerging in the aftermath of the Great Depression: bachelor ladies, or “the liver-aloners” – women who live on their own. One of Marjorie’s lessons for 1930s single ladies was this:

   “Don’t think that four bed jackets are too many. . . A warm comfortable one for everyday use, and a warm grand one for special occasions. A sheer cool one for summer mornings, and a lacy affair to dress up in.”

So, is a bed jacket dowdy – or is it beautiful?


Q:   Have you ever worn a bed jacket?


NOTE FROM CAROLYN:   I wrote much more about becoming a heart patient in my book, A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease” . You can ask for it at your local library or favourite bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon, or order it directly from my publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press (use the code HTWN to save 30% off the list price).

See also:

Looking good for your doctor’s appointment: oui ou non?

“But you don’t look sick. . . “

Chronic Babe: living a kick-ass life despite chronic illness

“We are all patients.” No, you’re not.

34 thoughts on “A plea for the return of the classic bed jacket for patients

  1. Absolutely, you’d think bedjackets would sell like hotcakes and that those ladies auxiliaries would KNOW that’d be a good money-maker! I happen to work at a desk using a keyboard typing and using a mouse all day… sitting sedentary can give me a chill, but using a sweater can impede my typing/mouse usage due to the cuffs, so while working from home during the pandemic, I found my BEDJACKET with 3/4 sleeves worked perfect for me: I had the warmth I needed without being encumbered by any cuffs. Since I knit & crochet, I made myself a bedjacket-length shawl that covers me whilst sitting, yet leaves my arms/wrist unencumbered! I should share my pattern with ladies auxiliaries as crocheting it was fast & easy!


  2. Have I ever worn a bed jacket?! Indeed!

    And I’m hot on the trail to buy one for my niece who just severed her spinal cord about a week ago when a tree fell on her back walking her twins home from elementary school, so she’s unable to move/feel from her ribs down, spent 1st 5 days in bed after surgery and was happily moved to bedside recliner, and voila, she’s now at Helen Hayes rehab, got her wheelchair & she’s learning all the ways she can be independent, all the things she still CAN do!

    I know a bedjacket will work so much better for her vs. her (beautiful) full length spa robe (wish I could sew and cut it down to a bed jacket, but alas, I only learned to knit & crochet… my sewing looks like Frankensteins’ stitches), so hopefully I’ll find one with cuff-able sleeves so they don’t get caught in the wheels of her wheelchair as she self-propels.

    I just know we all like the coziness of a robe, so I’m hoping I find one ASAP! Wish me luck, and thanks for praying!

    We’re very grateful as it could have been so much worse. It was a split tree: the smaller baseball bat size branches are what fell on her back, but whilst she was down, unable to move, the huge log part of the tree fell at her head, thankfully missing her. Like I said, it could have been worse, especially if she had been hit in the head or hit by the log, or her twins could have been hit.

    So we are grateful, and focusing on all she still CAN do! We all love our independence, so getting strong and learning to maneuver using the tools to slide from bed to wheelchair, from wheelchair to shower chair, etc are going to require development of her upper body strength.

    Thanks for your prayers for her, my nephew and their youngsters as they adjust to the changes, fortunately not insurmountable!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Anne Marie – first, I’m so sorry about the tragic accident that has injured your niece so badly. This is a truly life-altering accident that nobody could ever prepare for. She and her family will have a long and challenging road ahead of them.

      Your thoughtful plan to buy her a suitable bed jacket is a kindness that she will appreciate! Good luck with your shopping, and especially to your niece and her family.

      Take care, stay safe. . . 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you, you’re very kind, I will convey your thoughts and well wishes! 😊

        She & my nephew struggled with infertility, and are finally living their dream as parents to twins, so I know they’ll not let even this set-back deter them from the fullness of joy in parenting! It’ll just look different than they imagined!

        I see now, in retrospect, how God ordained their move to my village a few years ago: they liked the idea of raising them in a small town vs. NYC. And my hubby retires this year, and my work-from-home job provides flexibility, so we have the availability to come alongside them while they figure out how to accommodate her mobility needs.

        There’s nothing i wouldn’t do for my nephew & his wife, and I know they’d do the same for us! It’s what families do!

        So nice to find your article (or is it called a post or a blog perhaps? I’m not too savvy, lol), it’s a nice way to connect with folks like you who are really doing some good – I’ve navigated around your “page” and saw/read lots of great info for heart patients!

        It’s like a community service, but with a heart (pardon the pun, lol! Good grief, I am so corny! 🙄 Hahaha I’m my mother’s daughter, she was as corny as Kansas in August!)! 🌽🌾🌽🌾🌽🤣🤣
        Anne Marie


  3. I’m a knitter and I’m vain. There’s no way I will go into hospital without my own bed clothes, including bed jackets and a longer light weight cover-up cape. I’ve always wondered why hospital stores which are usually run by women’s auxiliaries don’t sell bed jackets.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Timethief, that is an excellent suggestion for hospital gift shops!! They have a captive market of female patients all wearing the most hideous hospital gowns right uptairs! I like your cape idea too – I have some colourful pashmina shawls that would be perfect for this….

      Liked by 2 people

    2. To timethief: Absolutely, you’d think bed jackets would sell like hotcakes and that those ladies’ auxiliaries would KNOW that’d be a good money-maker! I happen to work at a desk using a keyboard typing and using a mouse all day… sitting sedentary can give me a chill, but using a sweater can impede my typing/mouse usage due to the cuffs, so while working from home during the pandemic, I found my BED JACKET with 3/4 sleeves worked perfect for me: I had the warmth I needed without being encumbered by any cuffs.

      Since I knit & crochet, I made myself a bed jacket-length shawl that covers me whilst sitting, yet leaves my arms/wrist unencumbered! I should share my pattern with ladies auxiliaries as crocheting it was fast & easy!


  4. Ask for second hospital gown to wear backwards like a cape, will solve the rear view. Sometimes that “Out of bed” order happens before personal clothing is safe and allowed, or there is no one available to bring items from home.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Whenever my bedwear becomes all day attire, I often wear a vintage cropped cardigan with elbow length sleeves and a textured leaf pattern down each front side. Helps me feel cozy and just a bit snazzy. My mother knit it for my grandmother during her decline, or so I always thought. Mom remembers nothing of the kind.

    A knitted poncho is great when slings are an issue. But nurses probably would appreciate neither of these.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Kathleen, I’m imagining how delicious (and “snazzy!”) that “vintage cropped cardigan” must look, and especially so because your mom knitted it! Wearing a sling is a whole different animal, isn’t it? It must make a hospital gown even more awkward…


  6. I love your idea. When I was in the hospital I wore my heavy socks, thermal yoga pants and… their stupid gown.

    A topper of some sort is absolutely the thing to do… or they could always redesign the gown to be a little more fashionable like they made for those teens.

    Yes, we are patients but still need to feel like individuals… Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Carol – you are so right! We do still need to feel like individuals. This morning I heard from a woman who told me: “I was hospitalized for 7 weeks while undergoing cancer treatment. That gown and not being able to shower often were two of the worst things!” Pretty small yet important things that can make a difference…


  7. Carolyn, they sell a chenille bed jacket on the Woman Within website and it even comes in red! Sizes 14 up. They have other bed jackets too. Hope this helps!

    By the way, I have a black shawl that I wear every day instead of a bathrobe. It is a light knit with a back and two rectangles to make the front. It’s a great comfort to me to wrap up in it when it’s cold.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for this link, Meghan. That red chenille looks pretty nice, and I see they also have a similar one (also in red) that has smocking details. I’m going to try your shawl idea in the morning when I get out of bed first thing and wander around the (chilly) kitchen. I do have a big fluffy blue bathrobe but it’s very heavy (like wearing a winter coat around the kitchen!)


  8. Instead of a jacket, I would prefer a cape. Then I wouldn’t have to worry about getting my arms into and out of sleeves. That’s always a hassle when you have tubes attached to your arms. With a cape, one size would fit many.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Great idea, Charlotte. A cape is so practical (especially if it has some kind of closure that would keep it closed without having to hold onto the front with one or both hands when up and about). I just heard from a U.K. designer who is making practical yet attractive patient wear with clever adaptations/snaps/hidden pockets to accommodate things like drains, IVs, or anything that requires patients to be hooked up to medical devices or accessible to staff care.


      1. Those were attractive items.

        A cape could even be long for walking around — short for sitting, long for walking. Ribbons would be best for closures. Velcro would chafe the skin. Snaps get broken. Sure, ribbons would get torn off, but they can be (sort of) easily mended.

        Liked by 1 person

          1. Last winter, I went online and bought a beautiful, soft pink bed jacket. I have it on now. My paternal grandmother always wore one. I read in bed and was often chilly, so I realized a bed jacket would be the answer.

            As an RN, I support bed jackets in the hospital for all female patients! Thanks Carolyn for remembering them.

            Liked by 1 person

  9. Sitting here at this moment in my bed jacket reading this! Wouldn’t be caught without one. I’ve had this particular bed jacket for almost seven years and have wondered about how to get a replacement. It has crossed my mind to cut up one of my dressing gowns too. When my 91 year old father was in hospital gowns for weeks last fall, I resorted to an Eddie Bauer zipped fleece top for him as coverage for the inadequate, undignified hospital hospital gown.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I remember bed jackets. My Grandmother gave me a pretty light green flannel model. Loved it. I like the cape idea. That way when they need to change heart monitor patches, they can just throw it over you shoulder. A longer one would be nice for strolling around the room (when allowed and able). I do like the idea of the more stylish gowns. With a side pocket for teleboxes. Gowns are necessary evils but they do not have to be dowdy. (I can hear my cardiologist rolling his eyes!)

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Hello Sue – yes! pockets would be a great addition to the hospital gown! And I suspect that the only ones NOT doing any eye-rolling while reading this are the ones who have had personal experience living in a hospital gown… 😉


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