Don't look back – the hospital gown is getting a makeover

It isn't the fabric that's the problem – my most recent hospital experience involved a pleasantly patterned white-and-blue number. Nor the length or shapelessness of the hospital gown (at least the bagginess offers a kind of disguise). The real problem, of course, is what goes on behind your back. Women on Gok Wan's How To Look Good Naked receive hours, weeks, of tutoring before they acquire the mindset necessary to flash a backside to the public. In hospital, there is no such coaching and the exposure is unfortunately inadvertent.

"The number of awful gowns I've had to hand out to ­people," ­laments Ann Keen, health ­minister, who worked as a nurse for 28 years. Now all that is changing. Fashion designer Ben de Lisi, best known for gowns of the red-carpet variety, is redesigning the common hospital gown, the result of a project instigated by the Department of Health in ­collaboration with the ­Design Council to improve ­patient ­privacy and dignity. "Why would a designer noted for glamorous evening gowns be capable of ­designing a hospital gown?" De Lisi asks. He says he persuaded the Department of Health to let him try with sketches of an evening dress morphing into a night shirt. They were convinced, and next month his designs will be trialled in King's College ­Hospital, London.

In fact, the hospital gown market has been growing for some time – and those keen to smarten up for a hospital visit need not wait for De Lisi's designs. In the US, the industry is thought to be worth $76m (£49m), ­according to ­Premier Inc, an allliance of hospitals, and there are even hospital gown boutiques: for $50 you can waft around the ward in a printed one from with a "waterfall neckline. . . and ­hidden body cut for access to the mid-section". As long as a decade ago, designer Nicole Miller anticipated De Lisi with a range of gowns for the Hackensack University Medical Centre in New Jersey – with stethoscopes printed all over. You see, it is possible to have fun in a hospital gown.

As for his new model, De Lisi is giving away few clues. "The gown is unisex," he says. "It has access points throughout the garment to the body. If someone is waiting on ward for a test or x-ray, their modesty is kept in check." But, he says firmly, "It does not open up the back."

Perhaps these gowns may not feel so far from the red-carpet kind after all? "Well," he says, "there are similarities in the sense that it is one garment and it goes over the body. You could call it a hospital dress." It is also probably the closest most of us will get to wearing a red-carpet dress, complete with "a label in the seam that says 'This is a Ben de Lisi design'."

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