Post 6

Hospital Gowns: Reflections on Dignified Clothing

A person is both body and soul; both have dignity. Sure, the body is the ‘donkey’ of the equation, and Chesterton says you shouldn’t forget that the body is a humorous thing (he says the Romans forgot this, almost worshipping it, and that was part of their undoing), but still, the body obviously has dignity; it’s who we are. We aren’t bodiless angels.

Christianity has a lot to say about clothing, which stands to reason, tied as it is to the dignity of the human person. Both John the Baptist and the Gerasene demoniac lived in the wilderness, but “John was clothed in camel’s hair and had a leather girdle around his waist.” The Gerasene demoniac isn’t dressed, but is like a wild animal living near the tombs. Jesus cures him, and one of the obvious proofs of this healing is that he has clothed himself. When you look at famous paintings and art in a really big museum, one that contains even the ancient Greek stuff, you see that one of the huge differences when you hit the Christian-influenced art is that the statues start wearing more clothing.

To clothe the body is to recognize its dignity, and while the body retains this dignity regardless of external appearances, some clothing has the effect of removing the appearance of dignity. Take hospital gowns, for example.

I’ve been reflecting on why people look so bad in hospital gowns, and in the end, I concluded that it has to do with the loss of dignity, by which I mean the loss of the appearance of dignity.

Is there such a thing as ‘dignified clothing?’ Even a child knows there is. But what are the attributes that are unchanging about it? I asked WiseOne and the first word she mentioned was ‘modesty.’ And of course, it stands to reason! The primary purpose of clothing is to cover, and so if it fails in its ability to cover, to conceal what should be concealed, then it has failed in its basic purpose. A car that can’t quite get you there isn’t a good car.

But then of course, visions of all the exceptions come flooding in – what about bathing suits, what about fencing gear, what about ballet outfits? Are all of these outfits undignified because they’re less modest? Well, yes, they aren’t as dignified, and for that reason you don’t wear them outside those contexts. But the thing is: we all understand that they are exceptions. We accept the bathing suit and the gymnastics outfit in their proper and limited spheres. The rest of the time, we don’t expect to see them. When a good reason exists, we accept diminished modesty.

Whether it’s chosen on purpose, or forced onto you, like the hospital gown, clothing which reveals what it should hide does not do its job of preserving dignity. The effect, subconscious or not, is that it causes those around you to also forget about your dignity, and that’s a real shame. Instead, human nature, almost always curious, is drawn to notice what should properly be hidden, or at least, obscured.

It’s such a complicated topic, and there are whole areas which I’m going to skip, such as the African tribesman wearing so little (still dignified) and the issue of fashion and cultural change which supposedly give license for things unheard of previously, and the issue of age (more modesty with age). I skip these subtopics because I’ve got to get to those hospital gowns . . . —

I’ve always hated them.

Tell me what kind of clothing in the history of humanity has flapped open in the back like that? These wretched things aren’t even as good as the bed-sheet-togas that the university students party in. They are nowhere nearly as good as pyjamas. Sure, you can close the gown at the neck, but nobody is even pretending that you can really close them well anywhere else. It’s all about getting access to the patient’s body, but nothing else. A thin piece of shifting cloth is all they are. The ones I saw were covered with little flowers or snowflakes or some kind of print. Who thought that was a good idea for a unisex outfit? “Here you go sir; here’s your flimsy pale blue gown that might reach your knees, as long as you don’t sit down. This number is adorned with teensy weensy stars. It closes up at the top just like a jumbo bib; you’ll find the ties here. Oh, and please feel free to accent this look with slippers that your wife brings you from home, because you’ll be wearing this get-up the entire time you’re here.” Instant degradation. Someone tell me: is this the best we can do? Is access to the body the only thing that matters?

Does it fall into the exceptions? How similar is it to the other situations where we accept less modesty? Obviously there’s a similarity, but because the other cases are voluntary losses of modesty, and because they often involve situations where there’s at least an equality between the viewers and the less-dressed, it’s quite different. Hospital patients don’t choose their predicament for the most part, and that merits giving them as much privacy and dignity as we can.

I’d say a big part of the shock of visiting a person in the hospital is seeing them as pathetically dressed as they are. The last time you saw them, they had a shirt and the latest jeans, leather shoes and some stylish sunglasses. Now they look helpless and forlorn wearing that smock, sitting in that bed with metal rails and a tube taped to their arm. Add a bit of fluorescent lighting and you’ve got quite the look. Who doesn’t seem 150% sicker with that costuming?

But yes, I know, I know, it’s really important for the hospital to have access to all your – parts – in case of an emergency, and it’s easy to launder, and so on. I get it, but I wish the hospital rule-makers would look at this issue from the perspective of the whole person and come up with something a little more dignified.