OK, they aren't likely to generate headlines during New York's Fashion Week, but the never-ending quest to create the perfect hospital gown has inspired yet another generation of Tommy Hilfiger wannabes.

For decades, would-be designers have been befuddled by the challenge of producing a gown that is functional, inexpensive and, most importantly, relatively dignified. The fit and feel of a gown can go a long way toward impacting a patient's overall sense of satisfaction during the hospital stay.

And so the search goes on. Last year, the Cleveland Clinic embarked on a four-month trial to yield feedback on a gown that is now in production. "We spent a lot of time reviewing fabric," says Jeanne Ryan, R.N., executive liaison leading the design process. "You want to provide a gown that's heavy enough that there isn't any issue with transparency. But you do not want to make it so heavy that it's hot and uncomfortable."

An all-cotton gown failed comfort and wash tests, so they went with a cotton-polyester blend. The unisex design—by fashion maven Diane von Furstenberg—can be worn with a front or back opening. At knee-length, it is three inches longer than the gown in the study.

Dignity "was the driving force" behind that change, Ryan says. "Keeping patients covered up is definitely cross-cultural, and from an obesity perspective, the gown has four sizes." Each comes in a different gender-neutral shade—tan, white, green or blue.

Carleen Egbert, R.N., and anesthesiologist Brian Kerr, took slightly longer to bring their patented product to market. The Boise, Idaho, clinicians were inspired to create a new design in 2005, after watching an elderly patient walk away from them with the back of the gown open.

What they came up with was a gown with two separate panels attached at the shoulder by snaps, Egbert explains. The ties are on the back panel and come around to the front. "The patient is completely covered and is able to control his or her own privacy. Medical personnel simply undo the tie and have complete lateral access to the body," according to Privacy Preferred Hospital Gown, the company Egbert and Kerr established to sell the product.

Womack Army Medical Center in Fort Bragg, N.C., has become their largest-volume client, ordering 3,000 gowns. 

At a few colleges, students are creating gowns with faculty input. The University of Cincinnati partnered with a hospital equipment and beds manufacturer to explore the possibilities. They're considering a design for the bedridden, another for partially mobile patients, and a third for the fully ambulatory. Craig Vogel, an associate dean, says the material "minimizes the onset of infection."

North Carolina State University's College of Textiles in Raleigh also has its eye on gown innovation after receiving $236,110 from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. "We have developed several concept samples," says Traci Lamar, an associate professor. Asking health care facilities to evaluate the options comes next.

"The current hospital gown is a relic of a past era in medical care," she says. "It needs to go. We hope to continue playing an active role in seeing it replaced."