Cartoon image of winter clothes
Credit: Tatiana Ayazo

With joint swelling, pain, and chronic fatigue, the extra buttoning, zippering, and putting on heavy shoes and boots can feel impossible. 

While getting dressed is still a struggle for me, it has become easier day-to-day because I have molded my wardrobe around fairly strict guidelines I created for myself. These work for me, and although they may not work for everyone, I would like to share them with you. 

Start by Sitting Down

If you sit down while you’re getting dressed, especially when you’re putting on shoes, you will have less frustration — guaranteed. Get a solid wooden chair to keep by your door (or even your closet) to use while you dress. This is a total game changer. 

Skip Zippers

In general, I try to avoid buying clothing with zippers. If I wear traditional jeans, I buy one size larger so that I can pull them on without unzipping them. My jackets and heavy coats all have a snap option in addition to zippers. If they don’t, I add fabric Velcro tape.  

I have a variety of zipper pulls and keychains that clip onto zippers as well. These help make the zipper itself larger and easier to grasp. The quality of the zippers matter, too. I typically can’t buy anything from those trendy online boutiques that make knock offs because I usually can’t get in or out of them. 

Try This Button Hack

Buttons can be so frustrating. Every fall I buy a timeless flannel shirt that’s always in style for both fall and winter holidays with the intention of wearing it in family photos. Every year, the challenge of the buttons arises. I have complete amnesia about this style of shirt. Yes, I do have multiple assistive devices to help with buttons, but these are only helpful if you are an organized person and always know where to find them. I have found that if I have the shirt sewn closed, with the exception of the top button, it’s fairly easy to slip on and off over my head. Almost any seamstress, or any sewing machine, can handle this task. This is a great hack for those classic button-down dresses, too.  

If you have children, you know that the designers of these adorable children’s clothes love small buttons. I use the fabric Velcro tape on my children’s clothes, too. They actually love it because they are independent in dressing, and they love to rip it off (like “the Hulk”) at the end of the day. 

Be Smart About Shoes and Boots

With fall and winter comes the unfortunate end of slip-on shoes and flip flops. When it comes to dress shoes, I always avoid straps or buckles that need to be fastened every time I wear the shoes. Some shoe makers will make these buckles more cosmetic, and include hidden elastics in them so they don’t need to always be un-done. These are always first on my list.  

When it comes to boots, start with considering the weight of the boot itself. Next consider the ease of taking it on and off. If the boot is too heavy, not only is it hard to put on, but it’s also harder to walk in.  

Pull on boots are great, but if you have ever had to run after a small child, you know these can slip right off. Always look for a lined boot that is your appropriate size. Be sure to spend the extra money and invest in high-quality boots. This is especially important if you live somewhere with snow and ice. Remember, if boots can prevent a slip and fall, they are worth it.  

The technology in athletic shoes have come so far in the last 10 years. I seek out sock-shoes that slip on for most of my athletic needs. Anything to avoid tying shoe laces during a flare. There is also a new style of athletic shoe with a rigid spring in the heel that one can step into without the need to bend over. Although I have not tried these personally, I think this is a great idea. From busy moms with their hands full to elderly grandparents trying to get to their exercise class, these seem really convenient. I have seen these at all price points, too.  

Choose Fabrics Wisely

When choosing clothing for colder weather, fabric is so important. When fabric is too stiff or too stretchy, it complicates pulling it on over your head or arms and legs. I try to look for items that have a moderate amount of stretch, but still stay in place once they are on. I usually look for items that are more structured and tapered in places that are flattering and don’t require adjusting.  

Size Up

I buy most of my clothes a size bigger than I need. I do this to make getting dressed and undressed easier. Especially with dresses, I can always add a simple belt to cinch things up and make them tighter where I want them to be.  

When it comes to outerwear for colder weather, I always size up, too. I want to make sure my bulkier winter clothes will fit underneath as well as make putting them on and taking them off easier.  

Have a Back-up

If you have read any of my previous work, you know I’m all about plan B. Be prepared for bad pain days by having a back-up outfit ready to go. I have this one style of dress that is stretchy; it can be dressed up or down, and doesn’t wrinkle. I have five of these in multiple colors.  

In the summer I pair this with wedge sandals. In the winter, I wear it with tights and boots. When I can’t do buttons, snaps, or ties on the clothes I had planned, instead of getting upset, I reach for plan B. This has saved me so many mornings of frustration — and the best part, no one even knows. 

Say No to Back Closures

If there is a garment of clothing with a back zipper or closure, I don’t even consider it. Even for the able-bodied this is such a nightmare. This goes for side-zip pants, too. Just keep walking past them in the store. 

Allow for Extra Time

Give yourself plenty of time to get dressed each day. If possible, don’t rush through your routine. If you take your time, it will be less frustrating and less strain on your joints.  

Plan Ahead

Whenever possible, put everything out the night before. This includes your clothes, shoes, accessories, and outerwear. When you plan ahead, you can be better prepared for the task at hand.  

Start with the Side That Hurts

If you know you have a bad right shoulder or swollen knee, start with that side. You want to leave the most range of motion required for your better joint. If you take anti-inflammatory medications for pain, take these well before you start dressing too. Let them kick in first.

Ask for Help

If you know you can’t button or zip up something, ask for help. Kids love to help. Spouses are great at zipping (and unzipping), too. If you’re really desperate, a neighbor or co-worker usually won’t mind lending a hand. Once I got dressed for work at the gym, and I was alone in the locker room. I had to find a woman in the weights area to help me. It was awkward at first, but she was more than happy to help.

Be Kind to Yourself

I know this is easier said than done. Remember, the fact that you can’t zip or button your clothes is not personal. It’s a symptom, and fact, of living with RA.  

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