Slip into Something More Comfortable

Posted inID Mag
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Underwear technology has evolved a lot since our grandmothers strapped themselves into stiff, tight girdles equipped with as many gills and gussets as a primeval shark. Today’s career girls suit up in Spanx “power panties”—made with flesh-bruising Spandex that compresses jiggling fields of fat into dense, seamless volumes. Dermasilk Therapeutic Clothing is a totally different kind of high-tech underwear. These garments seek to disappear from experience, healing the body while they do so. Available in a variety of shirts, leggings, socks, trunks, gloves, and even a face mask, this high-tech gear has been clinically proven to relieve the annoying and debilitating symptoms of dermatitis and eczema.

Clothing exacerbates the destructive cycle of itching and scratching that plagues people—especially children—who suffer from these skin conditions. Dermasilk is knitted from medical-grade silk thread—the same kind used for surgical stitches. The silk’s natural outer layer, a protein called sericin, has been stripped off, preventing allergic reactions that affect some people. Dermasilk’s open-weave knit actually moisturizes the skin. And as the body perspires, wetness absorbs quickly into the fibers, lifting away from the body. (Cotton stays damp, cooling the skin and causing further water loss.) In addition, silk, an animal-based substance, has extraordinarily long fibers—up to 2,600 feet. Cotton yarn, a vegetable-based material, consists of millions of short fibers, no longer than an inch or so. These short fibers yield a much rougher texture against the skin.

How exactly does Dermasilk feel? To experience these revolutionary undies first-hand, I wore them for 24 hours. Step one was wearing Dermasilk to bed. Climbing under my down comforter in leggings and a long-sleeve, boat-neck shirt, I was a bit worried that I would overheat during the night and rip the stuff off in a sleep-muddled rage. (I was less concerned about attracting unexpected sexual advances from my husband.) We both slept peacefully, and I awoke with my undergarments, and my dignity, intact.

Dermasilk is designed to be worn all day, so after showering, I put my silk suit back on, layering it under jeans and a button-up shirt. (Unlike the perky young model in the Dermasilk brochure, I added a bra and normal panties underneath.) That’s a lot of clothes to wear on a temperate March day. The high-necked T-shirt peeking out from under my collar made me look like an off-duty priest, but the silky enclosure wrapping 90 percent of my body felt remarkably light and airy—almost not there at all. Nearly everyone has dry skin in the winter, and Dermasilk provided a weightless, friction-free membrane between me and my street clothes. I never felt overheated, despite a brisk walk to work, several high-pressure phone encounters, and an argument with my kids about who deserved to eat more pudding. Through the thick and thin of a busy, busy day, I barely even thought about my surgical-grade undies.

And that’s the idea. These garments are for people who are tormented by their clothes. The U.K.’s Travelodge hotel chain recently distributed Dermasilk pajamas to guests as part of a test program to ensure a comfortable night’s sleep. It’s also recommended for athletes, because the moisture-wicking effect helps regulate body temperature. Dermasilk is coated in an anti-microbial substance that aims to reduce the rate of infection that occurs with open skin lesions. The microbe shield also cuts back on body odor, a benefit to any wearer—and to society at large.

Dermasilk is expensive: £47.95 (about $96) for a long-sleeve T-shirt and £29.50 ($59) for a pair of briefs. It’s probably worth it to get an itchy kid (or a restless mate) to sleep through the night. But will Dermasilk be the next fashion craze? Perhaps not, unless consumers start to value invisible comfort over molding the body into perfect shapes.

Ellen Lupton is director of the graphic design MFA program at the Maryland Institute College of Art and a curator at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, which mounted her 2002 exhibition “Skin: Surface, Substance, and Design.”