Keeping Cool Fashionably

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.

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.”

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 maxi dresses, looks that touch down with the arrival of Memorial Day.

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.”

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