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.
“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?
- 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.