Allergic to Fashion. Literally.

May 27, 2014 • Fashion

Last month, at a semi-routine (i.e. hypochondriacal “emergency”) dermatologist appointment, I was made aware of a burgeoning development, calmly delivered via smiling drone-like prescription saleswoman between obvious, meaningless insights into my current routine and disguised disappointment with my hesitancy to use unnecessary, undisclosed Rx (hello bone deficiency side effects). My skin had developed a newfound nickel allergy, leaving itchy pink rashes in its wake. A simple irritation, I was told, something “light” to add to my list of allergens on new patient forms, like another 10% of the American population.

Cue to one post of my headboard, a nest of leather straps and silver hardware, a veritable wardrobe for both fashion extremists and fetishists alike, a trove of harnesses, chokers, belts, and cuffs fit for a bondage queen, shaped into pentagrams and medallions by way of metal rings chemically consisting of an element known as, well, nickel.

Further examination of my jewelry drawer proved that once innocent Musubi alien earrings, giant jeweled emerald Prada ear art, Ann Demeulemeester plated belts, a Comme des Garcons samurai waist-cincher, and an Agent Fox Mulder silver pendant necklace were now, quite suddenly, damned as guilty vandals in a crime against my epidermis. Metal-happy Junya Watanabe “parachute” (actually backpack)-inspired pieces were deemed temporarily/eternally irrelevant. My itchy, swollen lobes and rash-covered clavicle became a live exhibit of Rei Kawakubo’s celebrated Lumps and Bumps, my monkey-style itching a routine matched only by obsessive compulsive tendencies to perform meaningless rituals and annoyingly micro-organize.

I sat wide-eyed in the doctor’s chair, inner torment outwardly expressed by my desperate request for nickel alternatives, to which I was told that nail polish or duct tape could suffice for current nickel wares, but otherwise, to “look into wearing elastic-waist pants.” *Quelle horreur.* (Statement also applies to gag-reflex-inducing current usage of said statement.) Could I make duct tape belts look like OG Margiela? Are there jumbo-sized bottles of clear polish, and did any of them fit my yuppie Whole Foods-worthy expectations? Did my doctor rep orthopedic companies like she did drugs and her monthly extraction services? Twenty four and relegated to a retirement home wardrobe: was this to become my *New Reality,* ushering in a new era of compression socks and a rotating cast of neck-adorning, life alert panic buttons?

It appeared that my nickel allergy was (quite literally) itching to thwart my accessory style, namely my bondage gear, cc: harness collection, and hence, debilitating my layering game. But what does a fiend do in such an, okay, less literal bind when it seems you have actually become allergic to your chosen fashion direction?

Personal allergies are not common public knowledge, so in crowd-sourcing/research, my friends were terrible resources. (Sorry, friends, all six of you.) When consulted, however, my sister, model Ali Stephens, also genetically predisposed/fellow nickel allergy sufferer, says, “Nickel ruins my day.” Adequate assessment, my blood compatriot. But what was the online community feeling in their collective allergy reeling state of chemical avoidance?


Horror stories range from metal allergies misdiagnosed- resulting in full-fledged body rashes, blisters, and scabs before emergency room visits to correctly recognize the allergen- with others so sensitive as to avoid all knives, purse clasps, coins, bra straps, and eyeglasses, and yet others simply coating their lives in nail varnish. One study claims respiratory issues can also arise aside from the allergen’s common appearance as contact dermatitis, and like with any other allergy, you can become sensitized to the substance at any point in your life, regardless of age or medical history.

Frantic “SOS” texts to fellow “casual bondage sister” Ali Michael were in vain- because who else but me, clumsy, awkward, and permanently embarrassed, would somewhat comically suffer from rashes caused by none other than fetish apparel– as were attempts to hide my skin via extra fabric layers, and as my infant eczema creams ran out, I searched for a solution.

The Indian Journal of Dermatology, Venereology, and Leprology suggests diet could play a role– whole grains, soy, cocoa, nuts, legumes, canned foods, leafy greens, and licorice are all on the demonic high nickel content list, and, coincidentally, in my (somewhat) newly vegetarian lifestyle. (As if anyone can or will ever stop me from eating chocolate cake, or almond butter.) A three-year-old CNN article claims calcium carbonate can bond to nickel, creating a barrier between the allergen and skin, but as a cream of the substance has yet to be approved by the FDA, the closest option seems to be rubbing crushed antacids on my neck and abdomen- and just because I’m decidedly pasty doesn’t mean that shit won’t show.

Additionally, some quack-looking product known as Nickel Guard consists of two parts: one of which claims to detect nickel in jewelry and the sort (heretofore known as hazardous materials), with the other half “form[ing] an invisible micro-bond with the metal” to avert irritation. Glorified nail polish, or miracle solution? Five stars on allergen-profiting site, plus a label stamped with the phrase “Dermatologist Recommended!” suggest the latter, but would I have to reapply the solution repeatedly to all metal pieces of my wardrobe? Like the possible immunotherapy I could receive for my similarly notable environmental allergens, was there any way I could retrain my body into realizing nickel was not, in fact, an unwanted intruder?

Like the common cold, there is no cure, and so I was forced to consider other answers, answers that might be insufficient for fashion bondage and would subsequently result in decisions that had once fortuitously alluded me, like- gulp- my personal health over fashion.

I looked to Fleet Ilya, hoping that, in contrast to my favored Zana Bayne harnesses, their equestrian-influenced collection would consist of some chemical- any chemical– that wasn’t nickel. A quick Google search for both designers, “+nickel,” however, proved what’s critically absent from their namesake websites’ product descriptions: “…Zana Bayne black leather and nickel harness…” “…with smooth Italian leather and nickel-plated brass hardware, Fleet Ilya blurs the lines between bondage and fashion…” “…fully adjustable with three nickel-plated silver brass buckles…” A quick email to Fleet Ilya proved worthwhile, as the fetish arbiters provide “nickel-free plating upon request”- but did I need another $100 buckled leather collar, even if it was specially crafted to avoid my allergens?

The real question, the one I deigned to admit, was whether everyday wear of my harnesses was worth the trouble, because just as the finality of my allergy began to settle, a plethora of ringing celebrity harness endorsements shallowly, and perhaps momentarily, dispelled the quiet magic my small collection once held over my leather-loving soul- and as my wardrobe, and my lifestyle, were simplifying, due to greater happiness and investment in- quite frankly- the things that really mattered, they began to seem like maybe, perhaps, they were just too much for everyday wear.

So, I figured, the vintage “Best Friends” necklace with the oil-spill style finish, the starred metal button at my navel on a beloved pair of black lace-trimmed Tao Comme des Garcons jeans, and my dangling extraterrestrial friend: they could be absolved of their issues with a drop of the Nickel Guard, but my harnesses are figuratively shelved (at least fashion-wise) in a temporary surrender. (Forthcoming summer humidity, and the sweat that comes with it, it should be noted, exacerbates contact dermatitis, and hence, is no nickel banisher’s friend.) Should anyone need me, look for the girl in the “Attitude Combo Belt Set by Nickel Smart,” slathered in Stelatopia.

Allergies: 1, Madison: 0.





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