The perfect summer dress: It must be sleeveless but not too short.

Stories from the Financial Times. 
April 24 2011 6:49 AM

The Perfect Summer Dress

First, it must be sleeveless.

1_123125_2274791_from_ft_logox562px
Summer dress.

The essential dress is always a summer dress. Obviously there are cocktail dresses and evening dresses (those ridiculous, frequently monstrous creations worn by actresses at the Oscars), but none has the allure of the summer dress, which contains all the promise of summer itself. My personal favourite is a red silk shift dress with gold patterned panels at the sides which I bought for my wife in Vientiane, Laos, about 10 years ago; a decade later it's still going strong, its promise unbroken.

I am aware of the dangers of converting personal preferences into rules but, in the spirit of Wallace Stevens' poem "Notes toward a Supreme Fiction" ("It must be ..."), here are my thoughts on the perfect (summer) dress:

First, it must be sleeveless. Obviously. I announced this, years ago, to my wife. "But I have a dress with sleeves," she said.

Advertisement

"Which one is that?" I asked.

"The one with sleeves," she replied wittily. She might, more accurately, have said "the one plus sleeves," as sleeves are an add-on to a dress—an addition that serves to subtract from the total effect. A summer dress makes an important political statement about women's right to bare arms.

So less is more—but only to a degree. If the dress is very short then it is too obviously sexual. And then, because the wearer has to make sure that the dress is not too revealing, she is all the time having to pull it down or restrict her movements, thereby contradicting one of the essential purposes of the summer dress: absolute freedom of movement. (There is an interesting potential exception to this: the tennis dress is in some ways a sub-set of the summer dress but if it has to be accompanied by special underwear—underwear designed to be seen by the world at large—then the tennis dress stops being a summer dress and becomes purely a tennis dress. In short, it is possible to play tennis in a summer dress but it is not always possible to wear a tennis dress as a summer dress.)

A summer dress always looks best without tights or stockings. It is about limbs that are either tanned or in the process of becoming so. It is an advertisement for health and fitness (as such it is defiled by any association with cigarettes). The summer dress is only incidentally sexual; as such it is far sexier than the kind of fetish clobber or lingerie on offer in Agent Provocateur. Ideally it is even worn without make-up. In the context of ball gowns, where everything is artificial and heightened, make-up does not look out of place, but the summer dress makes anything but the most discreetly applied make-up look unnatural and unhealthy.

Although women wear high heels with summer dresses there is an essential contradiction between the freedom and lightness implied by the dress and the decorative, restrictive nature of the shoes. A summer dress looks best either with sneakers, sandals, flip-flops or, ideally, no shoes at all.

It does not require special treatment. It can be crammed into a duffel bag. It doesn't even have to fit perfectly.

Price is irrelevant. You can pay a lot but, equally, it can be the kind of thing you can pick up for next to nothing. This is appropriate because, in a sense, it is next to nothing, though it is also all-purpose: as mentioned, it works for tennis, but also hiking or cycling and it can then be worn to a party—no matter how glamorous—that same night. So a summer dress can serve as a cocktail dress but not vice-versa.

Above all, it must be simple. Bows, frills, sashes and so on detract from the essentialness that is the essential quality of the summer dress. It is the irreducible symbol, the last layer separating the naked fact of a woman from the world.

In Wim Wenders' new film about the choreographer Pina Bausch there is a wonderful sequence from one of her productions: a bunch of scared women take it in turns to try to offer a piece of red fabric to a fierce herd of men. It seems at first like a red rag to a bull. Finally one of the women summons the courage to come very close to a man. He grabs the scrap of fabric and her. The screen goes blank. A few moments later we see that the red fabric was, in fact, a dress and she is now wearing it. She is transformed—and yet still herself. This is the magic of a summer dress. And it is not just simple; it is primal.

This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

The XX Factor

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

Trending News Channel
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 20 2014 3:21 PM “The More You Know (About Black People)” Uses Very Funny PSAs to Condemn Black Stereotypes
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 20 2014 7:00 AM The Shaggy Sun
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.