What is it about summer that occasions the shameless abandonment of propriety and taste? The “ tube top,” the plastic “jelly” shoe, and the “Daisy Duke” jean short all owe their existence to our seasonal lack of discrimination. Only in the summer do grown and usually well-dressed women don such juvenile and unflattering styles; only in the summer do professional and otherwise passably attired men dress as though preparing to clean out the garage. If you have left your home in the past few weeks, you have no doubt witnessed some of the season’s more common missteps: exposed bra straps; bare, bulging midriffs; bad sandals. And you may have asked yourself why the first warm days of the year are like a Halloween costume party—a chance for people to wear whatever (or however little) they desire. After many such alarming sightings, I set out to catalog the worst summer fashion faux pas.
The season’s most egregious blunders arise from improper underwear. Most women despair of finding lingerie to suit the season’s skimpy styles and diaphanous fabrics, and many don’t bother to try. (“I just have a glass of wine and get over it,” says one woman in an article lamenting the dearth of summer bra possibilities.) And so bra straps, often dirty or pilled from numerous washings, overwhelm delicate spaghetti-strap tank tops—a stylistic faux pas that has become almost admissible. Floral and black-lace panties wink from beneath tight white jeans and slacks; and, in the harsh light of the sun, even plain white undies emit an eerie, spectral glow, as though the wearer were concealing a black light in her pants. With summer whites, wear only flesh-toned underthings, but remember that flesh-toned does not mean invisible.
It might seem that such errors stem from either a perverse exhibitionism or a stubborn refusal to buy tasteful underwear. But it may be that for many women, summer is synonymous with childhood. Body consciousness and strapless bras are not readily incorporated into a lexicon formed during years when bare feet and Kool-Aid wings were the ne plus ultra of chic. And to acknowledge that miniskirts and halter tops don’t hang like they used to is to admit the passage of time. Denial may explain the adult woman’s penchant for adolescent fashions, like last year’s flounced cheerleading skirts and other girlish costumes: maritime-inspired attire that evokes Shirley Temple’s sailor suits; shirts tied in the front à la the guileless Mary Ann on Gilligan’s Island; and, most infantile of all, the miniature “short shorts,” which at their smallest often measure a mere five inches from waist to hem. As Kennedy Fraser wrote in The New Yorker in 1971: “[S]horts … have their element of fantasy, since the woman who wears them must not mind looking like a child of ten.”
At the time of Fraser’s essay, shorts (then “hot pants”) were enjoying a rare fashionable moment. But for most of their history, shorts have remained a signifier of serious joggers, unstylish suburbanites, and conspicuous Americans abroad. They are the C-list celebrity of summer fashion, maligned yet ubiquitous. Recently, however, tastemakers have declared that the ultimate summer faux pas is once again cool. In the July issue of Lucky, editor-in-chief Kim France writes, “Before this year’s flat-fronts … have you ever seen shorts in Lucky?” (The very dated pleated-fronts, if you own them, should remain a skeleton in your closet.) And both Vogue and Elle have recently displayed shorts in their pages. These items are either the size of table napkins—like the $200 crocheted pair in Elle, which could double as underpants—or long, skinny columns designed for the 12 living women with pipe-cleaner thighs. In Vogue’s April “ Shape Issue,” a photo spread featuring 90-pound gazelles lounging in shorts reads: “As the days grow longer, trouser lengths get shorter. It’s a great look, especially for the slight of frame.” The hint is hardly subtle.
Any discussion of shorts must eventually lead to the subject of men, the style’s most enthusiastic proponents. I was once categorically against the phenomenon of men in shorts, but after listening to the impassioned pleas of several male friends, who point out that shorts are the masculine equivalent of the sundress and that jeans will lead to heat stroke, I have come around—sort of. Shorts are acceptable if they hit somewhere mid-thigh; among the most frightening of summer sights are men who have taken the notion of shorts far too literally. Shorts should also be neat and free of holes. This means don’t truncate your college jeans in an attempt to emulate Tom Cruise in Endless Love. Summer is not, as many men think, an opportunity to get some use out of one’s grungiest, most tattered clothing.
For both sexes, but especially for men, the dog days of summer present the conundrum of summer footwear. Few styles garner more vitriol, in conversation and in print, than sandals for men, sometimes called man sandals, or “mandals.” The animosity has multifarious roots. It’s not just that we are sexist in our dislike of hairy unpedicured toes and pasty feet. It’s also that sandals seem vaguely European and effete— the girly man is an archetype American culture has yet to embrace—and that sandals, when worn by men who are anything but effeminate, convey an air of affectation. (Hey ladies, I’m a sensitive, sandal-loving man who writes lyrics and grows his own herbs.) The lone permissible type is the soccer sandal; its athletic associations render it properly masculine and its David Beckham affiliation elevates it to sexy. It might be best to avoid the sandal trap altogether and choose an inoffensive pair of sneakers. But if you are a man who chooses to wear sandals, be aware that the person staring at the ground may actually be glaring at your feet. And leave your socks at home, particularly if they are the same dark ones you wear to the office—a place, by the way, where sandals should never be worn. With regard to women in open-toed shoes, a few simple rules are sufficient. A pedicure is, as Daphne Merkin wrote in Elle, “a necessary luxury.” Wearing stockings with them is like putting on underwear over your pants. As for flip-flops, the sandal’s plastic cousin, these are office-appropriate only if your co-workers don’t mind that you sound like a metronome as you walk. Finally, with barely an inch between the wearer’s feet and filthy city or suburban streets, flip-flops can be a health hazard. A friend gave them up after an audacious rat scuttled over her exposed foot. And when, one summer night on the subway platform in New York City, a street musician took one look at my dusty toes and began to improvise a song with the refrain “Lovely Girl With Dirty Feet,” I vowed to save the flip-flops for the beach. In Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion recounts a sartorial gaffe of this stripe. After a morning spent playing with her daughter in the sprinkler, she heads to the supermarket in her bikini. Her outfit infuriates “a large woman in a cotton muumuu” who, heedless of the fact that people in muumuus shouldn’t throw stones, engages in a kind of supermarket road rage, following Didion throughout the store, repeatedly ramming into her cart while hissing, “What a thing to wear to the market.” This story cuts to the heart of almost any summer fashion faux pas. They are all, in a sense, a case of wearing your bikini to the supermarket. For most of us, summer means intimations of childhood lost—less time spent in the cubicle or the classroom, and more at the pool, the beach, or running through the sprinkler. It’s no wonder, then, that when we re-enter the adult world we want to bring a bit of summer, however symbolic, back with us. But to avoid arousing the aesthetic indignation of your colleagues, neighbors, or fellow shoppers, try returning with a tan, say, or a little sand in a jar. And leave the bare chests, bikinis, and flip-flops where they belong.