Last week, I had the honour of meeting a true champion of maternal and child health, Christy Turlington Burns (@cturlington) at the screening of her movie, No Woman No Cry.  The film is a true eye opener on the subject of the numerous struggles associated with childbirth and should be seen by everyone.  If you have OWN network in Canada, you can see it on Sunday night.  It’s already streaming on OWN in the United States.

At the screening, Ms. Turlington Burns mentioned her past as a supermodel and it got me thinking about the idea of fashion and how it relates to health and in particular, germs. On the ride home, I realized that the study of germs could learn a great deal from the world of fashion…and that there might be a chance to harmonize them both.

The first similarity is that like fashion and germs are everywhere…and yet unique to an individual environment.

Regardless of where you are in the world, from the most remote community in the deepest part of Africa, to the runways of Milan, fashion is an integral part of human society. Clothes, makeup, hair styles, architecture, and even language are all parts of fashion and each area of the world has its own ideology and expression.

Germs are no different.  While some strains circulate the globe, like influenza, most regions of the world have their own specific kinds of germs that colonize the environment and the people who live there.  Strains of bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites differ depending on where you are in the world and each have their own expression patterns and markers for infection.

Another similarity is that both are dynamic yet have a tendency to go ‘retro’.

Some fashion stays for decades if not centuries (denim anyone?), but for the most part, fashion changes on a seasonal basis.  The creative genius of designers reflect on the social, economic and belief values of the community and translate the atmosphere into a means by which we can support, challenge or dispute these values.  Perhaps the most important part of fashion is that trends tend to reappear after time.  The ‘retro’ look says more about the world’s realization that something that might have been considered to be passé perhaps was not as bad as it may seem (including the return of KISS with makeup – Ay Chihuahua! ).

The same can be said about germs albeit at a significantly faster rate.  While it takes about 20-30 years for a new generation of humans to emerge, a new generation of germs can arise in as little as a few hours.  With a replication rate of as little as 20 minutes, germs have the intricate ability to change according to its environment and develop mechanisms to not only survive but thrive.  And, when it comes to ‘retro’ germs, the concept is similar although the the reasons are somewhat different.

Some 50 years ago, we had the war on infectious diseases won.  But thanks to antibiotic resistance, population densification and migration, lower vaccination rates and increased immunocompromisation, many of these germs have come back while others have simply mutated into much stronger versions of themselves.  Look at the rise of syphillis, tuberculosis, measles and pertussis. We believed they were all passé and yet they are back and for some (like the Pathogen Posse), all the rage.

I think the third, and perhaps most important similarity, is that fashion and germs can be controlled by both local and global actions.  And perhaps, this opens up an opportunity for these two worlds to combine and focus on making the world a better place.

To some extent, we are seeing the merger of the two worlds, even if it might not have been the intent.

I wrote earlier about Josh Le, the University of Alberta student who wore a pair of jeans for 15 months without washing them.  While he may not have intended on it, his “Denim Experiment” demonstrated the importance of personal hygiene and that many natural fabrics, such as denim, bamboo and others, have antimicrobial properties and can help us all to live clean (and less smelly).  If denim sales haven’t gone up because of this story, I cannot imagine what could work.

Then there is the continual barrage of slogans, names, titles and images silk screened, painted or embroidered on T-shirts and other clothes.  When I was in University, we used to do this all the time.  Popular phrases or analogies, and whether scientific or not, would somehow find their way onto clothing just ready for purchase.  At one time, my wardrobe consisted of mainly shirts proclaiming some kind of message to the world.

Well, why not take trends in germs and hygiene and do the same thing?  Imagine scrubs with the term #WASHING!, #NurseBlood, or even “Just Wash ‘Em” emblazoned on the fabric.  Or T-shirts that say “I prefer 62% alcohol” with a picture of a hand sanitizer bottle. I’ve even been approached about developing an entire #TeamHygiene line of fashion products and thanks to some help from @amjtetro and others, it may just become a reality!

For the record, my favorite saying is: “Clean Hands are Sexy!”

The overall goal, of course, would be to spread the message of hygiene and overall health to the community in a way that is non-invasive, non-threatening and more importantly, fun.

And perhaps that’s the starting place for the development of harmony between fashion and germs: spreading the message.  But before this can be done, we should have a collection of messages!

So, I would invite those in fashion and those in microbiology to send me ideas, thoughts and even initiatives about which I am unaware.  I’ll not only work to highlight them here but also work hard to see if there can be a way to put your passion into fashion.

And who knows, maybe one day when you’re walking down the street, you’ll see one of those ideas worn by someone you don’t even know.

Now that would be fashionable!