TRENDS come and go, but the dress persists, secure in its status as a metaphor. Irwin Shaw captured its wispy allure in his classic short story, “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses,” using the dress to conjure a mood of diffuse urban longing.
Bruce Springsteen struck a similar chord, crooning “in the cool of the evening light/The girls in their summer clothes/Pass me by,” as did the Airborne Toxic Event, an indie rock band, whose variation on the wistful summer-dresses theme still resonates in some circles as a catchy cellphone ring tone.
The list goes on. But to get to the heart of dresses’ appeal, talk to the women who wear them: those scores of fans, young or not so young, who have made them the backbone of their summer wardrobes.
In the punishing heat of a July afternoon, dresses are “the ultimate in comfort,” said Whitney May, who is an assistant in the architecture and design department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. On a recent Sunday, she breezed among the stalls at a flea market in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in a roomy pale green tunic-length style. “Dresses are almost always looser and less constricting than pants or a skirt,” said Ms. May, 27. “When it’s this hot, I don’t wear anything else.”
Selma Akkari, 19, a student, favors dresses in the summertime because “they’re colorful, light and airy,” she said, adding, “They make girls look happy and confident about their bodies.
Ms. May and Ms. Akkari were but two in a random selection of women interviewed this month in the city who, when temperatures soar, reach for a dress, fashion’s little coping mechanism against stale air, slack sprits and the much-too-taxing question of what to wear.
On soupy days the dress is “such a practical outfit,” said Bettina May (no relation to Whitney), who accessorized the paisley frock she wore on a recent excursion to Rockaway Beach, Queens, with harlequin-shaped shades and a parasol. Her outfit was practical, said Ms. May, 32. “You don’t have to think about coordinating tops and bottoms.”
But to dwell on pure function is to miss what, to some minds, makes the dress particularly current. The designer Nicole Miller said that as little as four or five years ago, “dresses were kind of unhip,” which of course, thanks to the inevitable swing of the fashion pendulum, “is what makes them cool now.” Ms. Miller suggested that the return of the dress coincided roughly with the rising popularity of vintage looks: the buoyant dirndls, halter styles, prairie dresses and trapeze shapes that, she said, “are still influencing girls on the street, especially the younger ones.” Young women’s enthusiasm has helped boost sales of scoop-back sundresses, shifts and shirtwaists as well as pavement-grazing maxis, looks that touch down with the arrival of Memorial Day. Dresses’ popularity tends to peak in summer, said Marshal Cohen, senior analyst with the NPD Group, which tracks apparel sales. According to the NPD, retailers recorded just over $6 billion in dress sales April and May, an increase of 3.2 percent over the same period last year. Dresses do particularly well in a recessionary climate, Mr. Cohen said, when consumers embrace them “as the most economical way to create a new outfit.”
The dress’s brisk retail performance is an indication that “we’re no longer willing to suffer for fashion,” said Jennifer Uglialoro, the fashion director of H & M in New York. Dresses, she said, owe at least some of their formidable staying power to their forgiving shapes, unfussy construction and obviation of caked-on accessories or cumbersome layering.
While H & M declined to provide sales figures, maxi looks, above-the-knee frocks, elongated tanks and vibrant patterned styles (stripes, dots, outsize flowers and bold swaths of color ) were best sellers, Ms. Uglialoro said. “Those things are such an important part of our summer collection that this year we’ve increased our order.”
Dresses inspire confidence, retailers said. “They always make you look pulled together,” said Colleen Sherin, the fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue. “That’s what makes them such a success.” Production advances, she added, have made summer cottons and silk lighter and more wearable.
And more romantically evocative. Younger women, who once adopted the dress as a cheeky send up of mid-20th century feminine stereotypes, are now dispensing with such ironies and acknowledging the frankly sensual appeal of the dress. Elizabeth Wurtzel seemed to touch on its attractions more than a decade ago when she lamented in “Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women” that “our entire culture has become dowdy.”
The episodic interest in red-hot lipstick, stiletto heels and silky lingerie, Ms. Wurtzel said, “seems an attempt to redress this loss of style and sensuality. We as a people miss playing dress-up.”
That notion wasn’t lost on Mary Alice Stephenson, a fashion consultant in New York. “Wearing a dress is the fastest way to assert your feminine self,” she said.That idea takes hold early in some women’s lives. Sarah Girner, a photographer, 33, discovered dresses at 16, when she said that she was “at the threshold of becoming a woman.” She said she has been captivated ever since by the “grace and elegance inherent a dress, the way it flows and moves.” Her fascination, she said, has only intensified with time.
“So much is tied up in a dress, ” Bettina May said, “a lot of emotions and politics.” But the real attraction “is how confident and on top of my game I feel wearing a dress,” she said. “It’s so much a part of the whole ritual of becoming a woman, like putting on lipstick and all your little fixings.” Its transformative power first struck her as a toddler. “I used to throw tantrums when my mom tried to put me in pants and a shirt,” she said.
Her recollections chime with the results of a behavioral study, “Pink Frilly Dresses and Early Gender Identity,” published last year by Princeton University. According to the authors, Diane N. Ruble, Leah E. Lurye and Kristina M. Zosuls, researchers in developmental psychology, “A large proportion of girls pass through a stage when they virtually refuse to go out of the house unless they are wearing a dress.” In very young children, they concluded, “pink frilly dresses are especially salient and concrete feature of ‘girl-ness.’ ” It’s not surprising, then, to learn that some women’s favorite dresses have something demure and old-fashioned about them, if not downright chaste. Ideally, Whitney May said: “A dress should have a bit of a childlike quality to it. It should be elegant and sophisticated but not too revealing.”
Something, perhaps, like the polka-dot navy frock worn by Emily Schwartz, a graphic designer in Brooklyn, scooped out at the back, but primly reminiscent of a pinafore. Or Ms. May’s own dress, embellished with innocent-looking scallop embroidery.
“In an outfit like this, I never feel too fashionably aggressive, like I’m dressing up or trying to hard,” Ms. May said. “When I wear it, I feel youthful, ready to move, ready to laugh, ready to be spontaneous.”