Listen, can we have a quick chat? Nothing to worry about. But we need to talk about your summer dress. You know the one. The long, loose one perhaps with smocking or shirring on the bodice. Oh, and the puffy sleeves – it’s definitely got puffy sleeves. Your upper arms and thighs are covered – that was partly why you bought it – but there might be a bare shoulder or a milkmaid-ish square neckline that shows a bit of décolletage. Was there a cut-out bit at the back? A bit of bare skin, but classy, you know. I think it’s gingham. But it could be floral or bright pink, or white linen.
You know the dress I mean, because even in the unlikely event it’s not in your wardrobe – yet – it is everywhere this summer. It is the dress your best friend is wearing in her holiday photos on Instagram and the dress your kid’s teacher wore for the summer fair. It is what to wear to your birthday lunch, whether you are turning 21 or 50.
How did the puff-sleeved, whimsical dress become a go-to look for the woman speed-walking to catch the train to work while checking her phone? How did we get to a point where even Nadine Dorries is moving on from vacuum-packed-tailoring to embrace the pastoral vibes of a cornflower-blue, spriggy maxi dress with tulip-flounced sleeves, as she did recently?
This dress has taken over the world because, despite looking whimsical and lightweight, it embodies two of the most seismic shifts in how we think, live and, therefore, dress, since that’s how fashion works.
The first is the vibe shift towards theatricality – life as performance art – that comes from social media and can be seen in holiday photography: faux candid but highly staged, a back view of the pre-dinner stroll down a picturesque street rather than everyone grinning at the camera across a table. The puff-sleeved, milkmaidy dress is a wardrobe-department version of the summer dress.
The second change is wholesomeness, which used to be a bit dreary and prissy, but is now aspirational and glamorous. Yoga holidays and half-marathons, being flexitarian, mindfulness, not drinking in the week – this was already happening when the pandemic turbocharged our obsession for fresh air, going for walks and eating outdoors. Masks and social distancing turned being sanitary into something that should be acted out. For all the predictions of a post-pandemic headlong charge into illicit, sweaty basements, the opposite has been true. The alfresco feast, with salad platters, scallop-edged napkins and rattan lanterns, is as aspirational this decade as an expense-account lunch at the Ivy was in the 1980s.
The point where wholesomeness meets theatricality is exactly where you find this dress. The mood may be sweet and gentle and breezy, but this is not a dress for pushovers. That is why there will be oversized puff sleeves, or a dramatic painterly print, or a fancy trim of rickrack or lace – a splash of Krystle Carrington glamour to make it clear that this damsel is not in distress, and by the way she recently sold the castle and bought a mid-century bungalow she found on the Modern House (follow her Instagram stories for #renovation).
To really ace your social media feeds this summer, can I suggest a cabana set – shirt and matching shorts – perhaps in terry towelling, possibly in neon orange? But this is the dress that has won summer. The vibe shift has a uniform. And you are probably already wearing it.