I am in search of a perfect summer dress that can handle the heat waves I hear we should all start to expect. I want something that will be cool without being naked, adult without being stiff, and won’t overwhelm a normal-size frame. Any suggestions? — Charlene, Pacifico, Calif.
Ever since Irwin Shaw crafted his bittersweet story, “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses,” and Bruce Springsteen gave the idea his own spin in “Girls in Their Summer Clothes,” the idea of a perfect hot weather garment has hung tantalizingly in our imaginary closet, along with the perfect white shirt, the perfect white tee, the perfect pair of jeans. We chase it in shops everywhere, convinced that if we could find it, at least one of our dressing issues would be solved.
Well, I am sorry to say that mythic garment does not exist. It cannot, because clothes are worn in context; they work, or don’t, depending on our bodies, our lives, the world around us. And all of that is subject to change.
That does not mean giving up on the search. It just means that you should shelve the idea of the “perfect” dress, some garment that is the embodiment of all garment ideals. Instead look for the dress that seems great for right now (and, with luck, for a few years down the line).
Though we tend to equate wearing less clothing with being cooler, more coverage can in fact be more protective without raising the body temperature — as long as the clothes are not too clingy. Think of the garment as a wearable sunshade and then look for light, natural fabrics like linen, silk and cotton, as well as midi-lengths and sleeves.
For reasons probably deeply rooted in childhood, we also tend to equate “summer dresses” with “frilly dresses,” which means ruffles and puffed sleeves. But a slightly more streamlined look can add a dollop of sophistication that Shaw himself might have appreciated; a vibe that’s more mint juleps on the porch than romping in the strawberry fields.
And one that Jennie Baek, a style adviser at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills, said can be dressed up or down with a mere change of shoes and bag, which is key when taking packing into consideration.
For example, this tea frock from Lisa Says Gah, with flutter sleeves, has both coverage and a sea breeze sway; ditto this style from Anthropologie, and this chiffon look. Other options include a crisp striped shirtdress, a neat white poplin number or a swingier, looser take on the same from the Kit.
Finally, the wrap dress is a perennial problem-solving choice. Tie one on.
Your Style Questions, Answered
Every week on Open Thread, Vanessa will answer a reader’s fashion-related question, which you can send to her anytime via email or Twitter. Questions are edited and condensed.