I used to own the perfect summer dress. It was navy blue silk with small white flowers, little capped sleeves, a fitted bodice and it swirled narrowly rather than frumpily around my mid calves. The general fashion of the day was skewed towards short skirts, but this vintage dress by Edina Ronay made me feel wonderful whenever I wore it.
Therein lies the mysterious power of the summer dress. If you, like me, are a “dress” person you will know what it is that a dress, quite unlike trousers, skirts, shorts, blouses and jackets brings to the way you feel. It offers the promise of a life that is deliciously removed from the pressures of every day, the repetitiveness of routine, the need to be somewhere, do something, that makes up so much of our time, and transports you instead to something far more enjoyable and gracious. It allows you to dream, to slow down – to be girlish, even.
As a child, longing to get out of scratchy and confining winter clothes, I seemed always to be told, “N’er shed a clout till May is out”, or was it June? Every year I can never quite remember, as I dither about whether it is too early to pack up the winter clobber and unwrap summer, which is how it feels when one replaces the winter woollies in the drawer with T-shirts and sarongs.
As soon as the clocks change I crave those dresses, bundled up in polythene bags at the top of the cupboard, that will emerge crumpled and smelling faintly of the suntan lotion that has permeated my holiday wardrobe stuffed up there with them.
Summer dresses are completely different from winter dresses, which, although they should offer the same one-stop ease when you are thinking about what to put on in the morning, somehow seem to bring with them more problems. What tights to wear? Should it be boots or shoes? Will you need a jacket and a coat? You just slither into the ideal summer dress and that’s it.
At the optimum summer-dress occasion last year, my friend’s annual croquet match, most of the women were in dresses. Because surely that is one of the things a dress allows you to do, in prints that ranged from ditsy florals to brash brushstrokes, hair piled up in dishevelled nests, arms uncovered.
Most dress-buying nowadays is accompanied for many women by “top” buying as well for when there’s a chill in the evening air, to compensate for the lack of dresses with sleeves. Boleros, shrunken cardigans, Chanel-style jackets, short coats – all of these are on offer as accompaniments. But the very fact of needing or wanting them destroys some of the unique appeal of summer dresses. You should not have to wear them with anything else.
Sleeves, on the other hand, need not compromise the summeriness of a dress. Sleeves are many women’s security blankets, soothing and protective. There is something cosseting about a soft, billowing sleeve after a day in the sun or on the beach. There is an elegance about the bracelet-length sleeve, which delightfully throws the emphasis on the thinnest part of the arm – the wrist – while covering the fleshy upper arms so many women hate. One of my own favourite dresses is a decade-old black one from Ghost that has elbow-length sleeves and which, I like to think, has a touch of the glamorous Italian widow about it – Coco would be a nice reference point.
I have a number of dresses by Legacy, an American brand stocked in the UK. For several years they were perfect. With slightly capped sleeves, a bias cut, a low neck and in a variety of feminine but not sickly silk prints, they ticked a huge number of boxes.
But whatever the shape, colour, fabric, or length or your summer dress, the main point is that it is so much more than the sum of it and your parts. When you find the right one it is like a new lover – the world just seems a better place.