Keeping cool, fashionably

Updated: 2011-07-22 15:32

(The New York Times)

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Keeping cool, fashionably

From left, Bettina May, Hazel Honeysuckle and Annick Rosenfield, all of Brooklyn, in eye-catching colors on a hot day at Rockaway Beach in Queens.[Photo/The New York Times]

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."

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