Sunday, April 17, 2016

Disability Style: What I Wear When Everything Hurts

I don't usually write about specific clothing brands or give advise to my readers about how to dress, but, for this post, I want to give advice about what to wear when you're in a pain flare. You know those days: when you've been stuck in bed for days or weeks (or more) and you just have to get out of the house or you'll lose your mind, even though you know you should stay home. Those are the days when your body says, "Rest!" but your mind and spirit say, "Get me out of here!" 

At times like that, comfort is incredibly important but, for some of us, so is looking good. This post is about what I wear that hurts as little as possible, and looks, if not beautiful, then at least better than I feel -- and that's saying a lot.

What works for me is not necessarily what works for you. We all know that every chronic pain condition is different, and every person experiences her condition differently. Of course, I'm also female and femme, so my advice may not apply to those whose tastes are more masculine. I am hoping some of my advice will help you and I'm also hoping that you will share your own advice in the comments section of this post. Let's help each other out!

As you know if you read Sublime Mercies regularly, my neglectful father died suddenly in early March, throwing my life into a chaos of conflicting emotions and American paperwork that is not over yet. As a result, I'm behind on my blog posts. For instance, Beau took these photos of me in February but I'm only turning them into a blog post now, in April.

January was an extremely bad month for me: a month long pain flare that nearly did me in. I was starting to feel a tiny bit better, the sun was finally out, and spring was busting out early, as it always does here. I couldn't stay inside for a moment longer.

Dress: Old Navy; Tights and garters from Sock Dreams; Boots: Keen; Sunglasses: Aldo; Sweater: Reitman's; Earrings, scarf, and jacket: vintage 
I just had to get out and enjoy the spring flowers.

I knew it would hurt like hell, and it did.

But I also knew my heart and soul needed it. You know that balancing act, when the needs of your body and the needs of your soul are in conflict, and you have to decide what you need most.

Sometimes, seeing a stray crocus in your yard is more important than rest.

Sometimes, I need to see the new daffodils.

For me, feeling pretty also helps my spirits and that was another reason I wanted to get out of the house. If you're anything like me, you live in either sweats or a nightgown most of the time when you're at home. They don't hurt. And, at home, that's really all I care about.  But I end up feeling like quite the schlub, and that doesn't help my spirits, which are already low when I'm in a pain flare.

So I dress up, a little, and prudently.

This Old Navy dress is one of my go-to dresses when I'm in terrible pain. I've been wearing dresses a lot lately because they bind less at the waist and lower back, the locus of my particular pain condition. But this particular dress is special. It's very soft and very loose and has no waist band of any sort.

I have a silly, unconscious habit of sucking in my belly whenever I'm wearing something that shows my waist. I did this even when I was skinny. Every time I catch myself doing it, I stop, but then without realizing it, I do it again. This can escalate my back pain in no time. So, on bad pain days, I make sure to wear something that obscures my middle enough that I'm less likely so suck in.

Yet I'm no fan of the tent dress. I like Mrs. Roper as much as the next person, but I'm not quite ready to wear a tent. A seamstress could easily explain how my dress is made. All I can manage is to tell you that it's made of panels, joined in such a way that they make it nip in just a tad at the waist. The kids are calling such dresses "swing" dresses these days. They give the body a flattering shape and definition, without binding or making me feel I have to pull in my gut to look thinner. (Consciously, I know I never have to do this, but some other part of me doesn't.) 

Now why do you suppose I'm looking up into the sky?

Because I'm looking at two bald eagles flying way high above me, that's why! See those tiny specks at the top of the photo? Those are eagles. I love my city!

Lately, I've been exploring another way to accent the waist without hurting my back. As I mentioned in my last post, 90s grunge dresses are coming back in style so I've been buying some vintage ones on Etsy. One of their great qualities is the fact that they are loose and usually don't have a defined waist. Instead, they have a piece of fabric on either side of the waist that I can tie as tightly or as loosely as I want, defining my waist as much or as little as I want. 

If the bow at the back hurts when I'm on my scooter, or sitting in a chair, I can simply tie the dress in the front instead. Such dresses are quickly becoming a second go-to style for me on high pain days.

But back to this dress. At times, my pain flares include excruciating pain in my ribs that make wearing a bra absolutely out of the question. Though I am a 38 DD, I can and have gotten away with wearing this particular dress without a bra, though I am wearing one in this photo. The trick for me is to wear a loose dress or perhaps one with ruffles on the front, with a super soft, stretchy, close fitting tank top or camisole underneath.

If you feel that you can handle wearing a bra, or you just can't stand to go out without one, my first recommendation would be to wear one without underwire. Sadly, given the size of my chest, that doesn't really feel like an option for me. As you may well know, underwire bras for larger bosoms can be extremely binding and uncomfortable, feeling more like a harness than a form of support.

Don't worry about the scratch marks on my skin. I'm so ridiculously white that the lightest scratch of an itch leaves bright pink streaks on my skin for at least half an hour. That's why I made this photo black and white.
I've had fairly good luck with the Hanes G113 bra which goes up to a size 40 DD. It's very soft, not terribly restrictive, has no tags to scratch the skin, and comes in a huge range of colours: black, beige, and white. Probably because I was smaller chested when I was young, and because I never had children, I'm lucky to have a fairly firm chest that stays relatively upright on its own. I find this bra gives me enough support but I'm not sure how others would feel about it. If you're proud of your breasts and want to show them off a bit, you might find this bra too minimizing, but, for me, the comfort makes it. If you feel that any hint of a nipple is verboten, this is not the bra for you, but I'm kind of over the whole nipple taboo that has held reign over the world for about 20 years now. 
Yes, this is me in both photos. I thought I'd spare you the irritation of seeing the bra on a thin youngster. It felt brave to take these photos. Note too the mottled skin on my lower back. That comes from using a TENS machine almost constantly for the first few years of my disability.
This bra has a three hook, back clasp which I know might pose a challenge for many disabled women. If you've found any good, comfortable bras with front or velcro clasps, please do tell us about them in the comments below. Indeed, I'd love for you all to share as much advice about bras as you can. What works with your disability, your fashion tastes, and your body shape and size? These things can be terribly hit and miss so a little advice is always welcome.

Calvin Klein's basic full slip, on a skinny model. It only goes up to a size large but is very comfortable if you're a smaller woman.
On days when you simply can't wear a bra, you can also wear a loose, silky, full slip to help conceal the contours of your ungirded chest (and cellulite in general). Slips are also a good way to help keep you warmer in cool weather. I wore them throughout the winter here this year, making it less necessary for me to wear tights (a subject I'll address later).

Once a staple of every wardrobe, full slips are no longer easy to find. If you're slimmer, you could try Calvin Klein's plain, full slip. If you're larger, I found a nice one made by T Voglio, which is available at Pennington's in Canada. However, I could only find it in black and it already seems to be sold out. Again, if any of you have more suggestions, please share them.

Another option is to buy vintage slips. They're beautiful and extremely well made. There are a lot of them on Etsy so, if you know your measurements, you can buy them from the comfort of your bed, where I'm sure you, like I, spend a lot of your time.

Two cautions about slips (and bras) if you have sensitive skin, which I know is common with some chronic pain conditions. Most full slips have adjustable straps and I worry that the little metal bit might irritate some people's skin. I'd also caution that, as pretty as it is on lingerie, cheap lace isn't often a good idea close to the skin. It can cause real irritation or worse, even for those of us with fairly "normal" skin. (Because I'm so pale, my skin is a bit more sensitive than most people's but nothing like it is for those with conditions that cause extreme skin sensitivity.) If you want to go for lace, try it on first. You may find you have to pay extra for good quality lace that doesn't hurt you.

Back to the dress itself. Despite the fact that I feel like I'm getting away with wearing a nightgown in public, I always get compliments when I wear this dress, probably because of its pretty floral pattern. Sadly, (the Canadian) Old Navy doesn't seem to carry it in this pattern anymore but I have seen it in some striped varieties on their websites.

It being February, there was still a chill in the air, though it wasn't winter weather at all. I've been having a lot of trouble wearing tights and nylons. Their tight waists cause me a great deal of back pain and, since I also have Irritable Bowel Syndrome, they can make my gut to roil in minutes.

I've been experimenting with all kinds of solutions to this problem and have yet to find a perfect one. Chronically Vintage wrote me wonderfully thoughtful email with lots of advice about solutions to this problem, so I've still got some tricks to try. She plans to write a whole blog post about this issue for disabled women; I'll do my best to share it when she does.

These extra long stockings paired with old fashioned garters do work relatively well for me. I suspect that the garters could be tough to manage if you have disabilities that affect how much you can do with your hands, and the pressure on the thighs might bother some women too. My hands work well and, since my main pain is in my back, the pressure caused by these garters is highly preferable to that of tights on my lower back.

Even with the garters, I've found all stockings still fall down when I walk, so I only wear them when I won't be walking much. They'd probably work better for a woman who is in a wheelchair full time; please let me know.

One more note about these tights. I was quite impressed with Sock Dreams, the company that sold them. They sell a large range of sizes, and they use real people, including larger, trans, and disabled women, as their models. I wanted this stocking and garter combo to be more successful because I wanted to give this little company more of my business.

Knee boots are another great option for wheeled women in cold weather. If you're on wheels, you already know how cold your knees, shins, and ankles can get when you're out an about. The current trend for high knee socks with high boots is a real boon for us.

Don't these boots look well with our winter kale? Footwear is always a struggle for me. With trial and error, I've learned that flexible rubber soles are an absolute must for me on most days but especially on high pain days. Anything else will rapidly increase my back pain the minute I walk at all. These boots are Keen. The heel is a little higher than I'd like but I'm getting used to it. 

My favourite footwear brand is Ecco, though I hear that women with wider feet prefer New Balance which has just come out with a prettier line called Cobb Hill.

I also have all kinds of trouble with buckles, ties, and zippers as I can barely reach my feet on the best of days, and pulling up a stubborn zipper, like the one on these boots, can hurt like hell. On bad days, I simply get Beau to help me, but I generally choose my footwear with the goal of independence when I get dressed. We all want independence, don't we?

Yes I hurt myself a bit trying to get to the kale to show off my fancy boots ... 

... and trying to show off these pretty flowers.

Because flowers!

I had a little trouble getting to these flowers in our yard too.

I even got a little playful, showing off our honeysuckle vines and their rapid, February progress. I'm hoping they will grow thick enough this summer to provide me with some lovely, scented shade under the balcony.

It was probably good for me to push myself a little, just to see the pretty flowers. We all strive to find our motivation to push ourselves to move our bodies a little: two of my motivations are nature and nice outfits.

So, back to the outfit. Given the time of year, I layered up so I was ready for temperature changes. This soft, slouchy sweater is a great colour for me and is easy to toss over anything. 

Beau likes it because he says it accents my waist. I don't really see it from the front.

But I can definitely see it from the back.

I added a matching scarf too.

Scarves provide more warmth than you'd think and allow for a lot of versatility as the weather changes on a given day. They can be quite itchy though, so choose them carefully.

I threw on this butter soft, leather jacket which I knew I'd need as soon as the sun went down.

I think I created a nice, layered outfit that didn't pinch or bind but also didn't make me look frumpy. Comfort need not be frumpy.

It was very good year for heather and I loved how the flowers on my jacket matched the flowers on the heather.

You know I'm a fan of dressing to match the day and the flora around me.

It's fun and makes me feel like a part of the lovely landscape.

Now, about hair, something that can be a real problem for disabled women and/or women with chronic pain. (I generally think of chronic pain as a disability but how you identify is up to you.) I do often wear my hair up but, if I have one of my frequent and debilitating headaches (another symptom of my disability), any pressure or pulling whatsoever on my head can increase my pain. Leaving it down becomes my only option. A good haircut can make this work well, as can good product. When my hair is wet, I put a little Sebastian Potion #9 in it to keep the frizz down. I also sometimes use Bumble and Bumble curl cream for fine hair to help sculpt my curls. When I go out, I simply brush my hair and then spritz it with water mist to redefine the curls.

But, let's face it: when you're in constant pain, washing your hair can be far far too much work, or even downright impossible. I don't wash my hair as often as I should. I just hope my dirty hair days coincide with my no headache days so I can pin it up. I've also found that simple headbands are easy to use and can conceal the worst of dirty hair. 

I recently started using dry shampoo too. I don't like the way it makes my hair feel and smell, but it does make it look better easily and quickly. It adds volume, redefines curl, and eliminates greasiness.

And, when it all gets too much, I sit on my disability stool in the bath and get Beau to wash my hair, an exercise in giggles and soap in my ears. Bless him for it.

Speaking of hassles, probably because of my mixed hippie and Quaker upbringing, I am not a woman who feels naked when I go out without makeup. I go without it less often than I wear the stuff, and I feel hopelessly inept when I do wear it. My comfort without makeup removes one step from my routine when I go out. If I'm in a lot of pain, I'm even less likely to add that step. However, I generally will wear a tinted, Burt's Bees lip shimmer, almost always in Fig, one of their darkest colours (plum is even darker but also very smeary). It moisturises the lips while adding a little colour to a face drained by pain. The downside is that it comes off quickly and needs to be reapplied often.

As I get older, I do get frustrated with flushed skin, dry red patches, and the redness of tiny spider veins. I can quickly fix that with a judicious application of Kevin Aucoin's dewdrop powder foundation, DW03. It's not too cakey or obvious. But, honestly, I usually don't bother.

I'm extremely white, which can make me look drawn and tired. I made a conscious effort in this post not to alter these photos to give my face more colour, nor to alter them to hide the red flushness that can overtake my face in an instant. This is the real me, super white and prone to red patches. Still, not too bad for 45 years old!

Sunglasses are wonderful a short cut to looking put-together and sophisticated without wearing makeup. Movie stars do it all the time. No time or inclination to do your eyes? Just throw on some stylish sunglasses and a little lip tint and you're ready to go. Dark sunglasses have the added benefit of making white skin look less flawed; the contrast between the dark and the light highlights the white and not the red. Of course, sunglasses are also good when you have a cracking headache which I so often do.

Here's a funny thing: as much as I couldn't care less if I'm not wearing makeup, I simply cannot leave the house without earrings. I have a real passion for vintage clip-on earrings and, unless I have one of my worst headaches, even on a bad pain day, I am willing to suffer the added pain of clip-ons. Go figure. We all have our beauty musts.

About my canes. My motto is: If you have to use canes, you might as well make them a fashion accessory. Therefore, I have many canes to go with my different outfits and often find myself asking Beau, not which cane I should use that day, but which cane I should wear. I chose this cane in part because the pink matched my outfit but you can also see that I'm really relying on it to help ease my pain and increase my mobility.

I've found that canes with this particular triangle structure at the top tend to give the best support. The triangle is the second strongest shape, second only to the circle, so it makes sense that this cane type feels the sturdiest.

I think that's all for this particular outfit, though I have other tricks I'll show you in other posts. Tell us all what works for you! 

(I'm sharing this with Sydney Fashion HunterNot Dead Yet, Not Dressed as Lamb, Elegantly Dressed and Stylish, Happiness at Mid Life, Fashion Should Be Fun, and Style Nudge.)


  1. Love this post! I can relate, as today I am in one of those pain flares you mention. and yes to the robe at home :-) I love the comfortable flowy floral dress you have on, and have those boots from Keen as well. I have to wear shoes with support and cushion as well. If I wear a block heel it is mainly to sit at a wine bar , or sit somewhere. I am all for dresses when I am havig a high pain day for those reasons. I cant stand bras but they are necessary, so I opt for a bandeux one for myself as straps bug me. So glad you got out to smell the flowers!
    Thanks for linking up with Turning Heads Tuesday
    jess xx

    1. I should have tagged you when I posted this as I knew you'd be able to relate. I think it's so funny that you have the exact same boots as mine. That's why it's good for us spoonies to share information with each other. With my endowment, bandeau bras are just a nuisance, squishing me and falling down constantly. If I could though, I'd wear them in a split second.

      I hope, despite your pain flare, you've been getting out to smell the flowers too, and I hope your pain flare is all over now.

  2. My daughter has fibro and the pain issues and sensitive skin, stomach & other GI problems that can often go along with it. I don't have fibro but I have some overlapping conditions, including sensitive skin and GI issues. Comfort in clothing is a priority for both of us - softness and looser fit helps. We are always feeling fabric when looking for clothing. If it doesn't feel "right" it doesn't come home. Nothing stiff, scratchy, cold-feeling (as some cottons tend to be), tight, or slinky (silk can be like nails on a chalkboard to me). I find that pre-owned clothing tends to be softer and easier to assess for problems as it has already had the starch or other fillers washed out.

    The colours in this post are amazing. Your sweater and scarf pick up the flower colours in so many of these shots. A joy to read and see!

    1. That's interesting what you say about pre-owned clothes. That makes sense to me. My skin is not particularly sensitive so I'm okay with some of the fabrics you mention. Binding at the waist is my real clothing torture, or one of them anyway.

      I happy you liked the colours in my post. They're probably my favourite colours and Beau and I used them -- with an addition of sage green and the cedar of the venue itself --for our wedding. We invited the guests to wear those colours too and most of them did, which kind of added to our modest flowers and decorations. It worked out really well.

  3. Comfort is key for me with every thing I wear. I have donated items that feel too restrictive or uncomfortable. You look very pretty in this outfit.

    Thank you for being a part of TBT Fashion link up and hope to see you soon!


    1. I used to suffer for fashion but I do so less and less... except for my clip-on earrings, which I just can't give up. I'm also generally unwilling to carry a backpack, even though they're more comfortable for my back than pretty bags are.

      Glad you like my comfortable outfit.

  4. I've come back to this post since you linked to it in your 2016 year-end post. (Good riddance to that year!) In 2016 I went from mild pain that I didn't think was anything worth mentioning (sore knees when walking down the block, stiff and sore hands) to knee, back, and hand pain that has me using braces and canes so I can function. Thus, the first time I read this, I was reading as someone who did not think I would have a use for the information any time soon and now I'm reading it like my life depends on it. (Because my fashion sense kind of does...)

    I'm going to have to consider garters and stockings instead of tights (when I can afford it). Any tips on what you do for chafing? And I will definitely be on the look-out for some of those tie-back dresses. My elastic-waisted skirts are doing me no good right now.

    1. I'm so sorry your pain is escalating. Do you yet have a diagnosis?

      Oddly, I don't seem to get that chafing problem, even though I'm not thin. I suspect talcum powder might help, but ask around; it's a problem for most women. I've been having good luck with any dress that doesn't have elastic at the waist, even if it also doesn't have a tie. Obviously stretchy dresses work, if you're okay with your stomach's shape showing. Otherwise, just make sure you get dresses with waists a few inches bigger than your own waist.

      We've had a very unusual cold snap here, complete with snow (which is keeping me housebound because I use wheels), so stockings and garters aren't working for me. I have one pair of Hue, plus size tights that are working but I can't find any more. Addition-Elle in Canada, and Lane Bryant in the States have plus-size tights, which I think might work for you even if you're smaller. I'm going to try some of those. Alternatively, cut diagonally into the waist of your tights in a few places and they'll be looser. But, really, I've yet to find the perfect solution. I've been wearing jeans far more than I'd like.

    2. No diagnosis yet. But that's in part because I had to wait to get insurance that would cover going to a rheumatologist, which is the next step.

      And it's always cold here (we had snow on my wedding day which was April 20), but I end up wearing tights anyway. It's just what works best with work skirts/dresses. I'll keep in mind plus-size tights, though...

      I don't wear pants, although this is enough that I've considered going back...

  5. Thank you for sharing this! I seem to only be able to wear turtleneck shirts with no sleeves and leggings, and if jeans then they’d need holes in the knees, and no bra. I can’t wear anything besides this because of my spine, I had surgery for my severe scoliosis curvature of the spine, bras, or any tight outfits feels like I’m suffocating, my shoulder blades always in pain all to the point I get migraines. Pants restrict my bad knees from moving correctly. I feel so much better now that I’ve found the real reasons I’m always in pain. I’d exercise and every time feeling better but didn’t know half the pain was from wearing incorrect or uncomfortable clothing. I do like my new style though which is good haha!

    1. Every pain condition is different, so every person's sartorial solutions are different too. Turtlenecks would make me feel strangled, but they work well for you. Leggings hurt my back, but not yours. Disability is not a "one size/style fits all" situation!