I have severe sensitivities to most fabrics and can really wear only cotton, nylon and leather. Polyester, silk, rayon, spandex, linen and wool irritate my skin, eyes and mouth. Acrylic causes breathing issues. I work remotely, so cotton sweatshirts, jeans, T-shirts and shorts are fine. But I have an extremely difficult time finding fashionable clothes to wear to big events. This is an issue I’ve faced my entire adulthood, and there are thousands of others like me. Are there any brands that offer stylish cotton looks? — Malinda, Kailua-Kona, Hawaii
People with disabilities of every kind have long been fashion’s biggest blind spot — and, as far as I am concerned, missed opportunity. Though the industry has been getting notably better about acknowledging and trying to address many of its own failings, including a history of racism, sizeism and ageism, it still falls short when it comes to disabilities. Even if last season there were a few models in wheelchairs on select runways.
Given that, according to the C.D.C., one in four adults in the United States is living with a disability, this seems not just wrong, but plain old dumb. After all, those millions of people buy clothes. And as my friend Sinéad Burke, an activist, often points out, they want and deserve to wear clothes that express their identity and values and make them feel great about themselves.
Which is to say: fashion.
Which brings me to you. It should not require hours of research into the material composition of a garment before a consumer can make a calculated decision on whether or not to buy it. But for those with skin conditions like textile contact dermatitis (the official name for skin reactions to fabric), this is just reality.
And my guess is that somewhere in those hours, most people give up and decide not to buy. Even if you can discover what a garment is made of, information on what chemical treatments are used in the process is almost never available, and it’s often the residue of those chemicals that causes the problems. The result is a situation in nobody’s interest. Yet it persists.
In some cases, certification agencies have done a bit of the work for you. Maxine Bédat, the founder of the New Standards Institute, a nonprofit that is focused on creating sustainable standards for clothing, suggests looking for “OEKO-TEX or bluesign certification and organic cotton, which limits some of the more dangerous chemicals used in our clothing.”
Yet that doesn’t change the fact that, as you point out, many such certified organic garments are either fairly basic, in part because “short staple cotton doesn’t have natural elasticity,” as Maxine said, or are very expensive. (If you are willing to really invest, La Double J is a good place to start.)
The good news is that there is a wardrobe hack for the situation.
First, get a well-made cotton dress that feels good against your skin. Maxine suggests looking at Doen, which has some pretty floral block-print frocks. Livia Firth, the founder of the Green Carpet Challenge and the consultancy Eco-Age, favors Kitri from London and KowTow from New Zealand.
Then think of your dress as a primed canvas, against which you are going to go all in on the accessories: statement shoes (in leather); a great belt, also leather (think Michelle Obama and her wide corset belts — Lyst has a wide selection); a chic bag (leather); and some eye-catching jewelry. It is, after all, a lot easier (and more economical) to keep accessories updated than clothing.
And then get ready for your entrance.