By Kate Zambreno
Around late May or early June, on the first assuredly perfect day, every woman under forty wears a summer dress.
On “dress day,” as I’ve come to refer to it, the city turns into a shampoo commercial. More car accidents than usual occur on this day; men walk around in a stupor; stiff muscles result from neck craning. Quarrels must erupt among couples taking a stroll down the street, the girlfriend pulling along the hand she clenches tightly, or silencing roaming eyes with a “don’t even think about it” stare. If she knows any better, she sports a pretty dress herself, flirty fabric blowing up in the warm almost summer air, pulling a Marilyn Monroe routine, sheer against the light, revealing untouched knees, freshly shaven legs, hibernated skin.
Am I alone here in this discovery of the collective tease that is dress day? Is this not a calculated mating ritual, some weird mystery of femininity dictated by hormones like how close women friends get their period at the same time? In college in Evanston, dress day was pushed earlier. Girls froze in their linen or cotton frocks the first day the sun peeked out, usually in March, goosepimply flesh covered up by a cardigan.
Those in warmer weather climates, I do not know. Perhaps the boys there go about rawly overstimulated, perhaps they’ve become immune to the glory, the simple eroticism, of the summer dress. I’m not talking about the functionality of the cocktail sheath, the adult preening of the prom dress, the S/M posturing of the business suit. The sundress is something different. Every summer I buy a new dress, along with sandals. It is my seasonal rite of passage. And though I’ll wear it until it’s my comfortable throw-on by the end of the summer, it’s broken out on that day.
You slip on a summer dress, a flowery halter, or a seersucker spaghetti-strap , and all of a sudden you feel as light as air. The dictate of a sundress is to show as much skin as possible, while leaving as much to the imagination. Lingerie can peek out slyly to be poked underneath straps. (I still hear, in the back of my head, my mother telling me to cover up my bra straps, it’s not ladylike.) And then there’s the walk. You walk differently in a summer dress—there is a knowingness, a certainty in your gait, calling to mind Robert Herrick’s ode to lyrical movement: “Then then me think how sweetly flows/ the liquefaction of her clothes.”
The summer dress is the stuff adolescent dreams are made out of. It’s the formulaic scene from any teenage movie or TV soap opera for the Noxema set—the unapproachable popular girl walks by the hornball protagonist, in soft-focus, swaying slow-motion in her sundress. A song comes almost out of nowhere, like Simon and Garfunkel’s “Cecilia.” The boy is hooked, lured in by the dress, the pretty girl, the pretty girl in the dress. Time temporarily stops.
The summer-dress ritual carries over from high school. Growing up we would come back from the summer transformed. We changed, grew a few inches, got boobs, matured from the dalliance with the boy from the neighboring school or a fling from that vacation in the Bahamas. Maybe dress day is like that first day of class. And the donning of a sundress like the resurfacing of the self, where we shed our winter bulk and strut into the sun like primping phoenixes.