Battling summer skin shame with fashion

Story highlights

Summer fashion leads to anxiety for people with freckles, poor circulation and other conditions

Psoriasis once kept Stacy London wearing only skin-covering turtlenecks and pants

The "What Not To Wear" expert has fashion guidance for people feeling skin shame

CNN  — 

The year Stacy London turned 11, she started wearing a turtleneck and long, corduroy pants every day, even in summer. For the next two years, that was her uniform.

She was a long way away from being known as a fashion expert who guts people’s closets. At the time, she felt like long sleeves and high necks were her only choice: She had woken up one morning with angry psoriasis scales covering her body from neck to toes. It taught her a painful lesson in self-consciousness.

“When my skin disease was at its worst, I hated the summer sun. I was like Emily the Strange. I was like Wednesday Addams,” she said. “It was so painful to live with something that there was so little I could do about and at the same time could inflict so much emotional damage. It made me feel like a monster.”

Hiding behind clothes and worrying about looks is “not about vanity when it is a question of identity,” London said. “We’re worried about it because we’re worried about what kind of image we’re putting forward, what people are going to think about us.

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    “People want to be accepted and respected, approved of and loved.”

    As a fashion expert on TLC’s “What Not to Wear,” which starts its final season on August 9, London and her colleague Clinton Kelly have seen some tragic attempts to hide what makeover clients see as flaws, whether it’s extra weight around their waist or legs they think should be longer.

    For many, though, it’s skin: Chronic conditions such as psoriasis, but also freckles, aging skin, poor circulation, stretch marks, scars and body hair cause skin shame, and make people want to cover up, London said.

    But how do you dress to suit that? Especially in summer?

    “When I was in my 20s, I loved summer clothes,” said Naked Fashion Help image consultant Carmen Westbrook, from Atlanta. “I loved wearing short skirts and dresses and showing off my legs. And I’m glad I had that time in my life.

    “Now I’m in my 40s, my skin is aging. I don’t enjoy summer clothes,” she said. “I don’t like showing off my skin.”

    She joked that she might be a vampire, but had to accept it: “I’m white, that’s who I am. I have really pale skin.”

    Atop a bathing suit, she makes sure to add a fabulous hat and some jewelry, maybe even an elegant cover-up, “to make it more of an outfit,” she said.

    As her clients try to hide their arms, knees, legs and even feet, Westbrook’s plan is to focus on the positive and adhere to the advice she learned at the London Image Institute: Show your skinny bits. When ankles, wrists, lower arms and calves are exposed in tasteful ways, everyone looks longer and leaner, Westbrook said, while still covering up the parts of their skin that they don’t want to show.

    “I tell clients, ‘Let’s accentuate what we like,” she said. “Look in the mirror and focus on one good part. I hope everyone can at least do that.”

    Clothes used to be the tool London used to hide her skin, but fashion helped saved her, she said. And now she hopes to share the secrets she has learned over the years.

    “When style is at its best, it’s a wonderful source of confidence,” London said. “It becomes a kind of armor.”

    She teamed up up with AbbVie to launch the “Uncover Your Confidence” campaign this week. The website aims to help those with psoriasis, a chronic immune system disease that affects the skin, to feel empowered through fashion advice, empathetic personal testimonies and help finding dermatologists.

    Style and beauty products are supposed to help you forget about the parts of your body that you perceive as flaws, London said, even if only for a little while.

    London uses makeup, moisturizer and smart fabric choices to combat her skin troubles.

    “These are things that we can do, these little tricks of the trade. You put a shiny moisturizer or foundation on your decolletage area, which can get very wrinkly as you get older, more freckly, liver spotty. But the more shiny moisturizer you use, the more reflective it is, and you see less of those things.”

    “Sally Hansen makes a leg foundation that I live by, because for most of my life, my skin has been discolored. If I don’t put that on when I’m wearing a dress, it looks like I am wearing blue stockings instead of skin,” because of poor circulation due to psoriasis.

    She finds ways to make fads work for her, too.

    With longer silhouettes strutted into spring and summer collections, maxi dresses, full midi skirts, floaty Bermuda shorts and even jumpsuits made of tissue-thin cotton are all trendy clothing options that look like deliberate fashion choices, but are in actuality cover-ups, London said.

    “All of your clothing still has to be chosen with fashion in mind,” she said. “Look around you so you know what the trends are, not if they’re going to work for you.”

    “As I sit here wearing an Isabel Marant Etoile [jumpsuit,]” London explained, the outfit offers nearly complete body coverage, but because the fabric is cotton and ultra-thin, it’s breathable. “Very, very easy to wear in the swamp-like weather we’re having now in New York City, without having to show a lot of skin,” she said.

    What else will London be wearing this summer? “I am all about cotton dresses,” she said.

    “Particularly this season I am obsessed with white. And one of my favorite companies, Dolce Vita, makes these beautiful white cotton dresses. A bunch of their designs have three-quarter sleeves. They’re so whisper-thin, the sleeves don’t feel like you’re in a straight jacket, and you can wear them in the hottest weather.”