This weekend, a man in a deli told me I was ‘the most summery person he’d ever seen’. This might have been nice, except that his tone was less complimentary, more one of alarm.
I looked down. I was wearing my favourite vintage sundress which is – in fairness – hot pink, canary yellow and red, with flounces and tie-up bows on the shoulders. On my head was a St Trinian’s-style straw boater. On my mouth was tangerine lipstick. There might have been bird of paradise earrings involved. But still, it was a heatwave! All rules are off in a heatwave! Everyone dresses like a dressing-up box fever dream in a heatwave, right?
Patently not. My whole adult life, I have tortured myself with ideas of the way I should dress in summer – which is to say, nonchalant. Breezy, understated, braless. A touch of French bohemian here, a smidge of latter-day Grecian goddess there. Minimal accessories, a fresh, nature-inspired colour palette, the kind of flowy, sexy-yet-structureless shapes that might have been thrown on after bathing in a nearby lake. And yet instead, year after year, as the mercury rises, all my best intentions go out of the window and I end up dressing…. extra.
By extra, I mean sprinkles, strawberry sauce AND a flake. It’s a look best described as ‘overgrown toddler’. Even as I watch the minimalists waft by in their crisp white cotton, sun-faded black and muted khaki tones, I find myself drawn to day-glo colours and prints that belong on a pair of nursery curtains. Fruit! Fish! Flamingoes! I begin turning up to work meetings and coffee dates in outfits that really only look appropriate for an afternoon at a fairground on the end of a pier.
I’m not the only one susceptible, though. Shortie dungarees, frou-frou skirts, slogan tees, smocking... those drop-crotch jumpsuits that tread a fine line between ‘babe’ and ‘babygro’... so many summer trends veer into kiddie territory if you’re not careful. At a barbecue on Sunday I complimented a five-year-old on her watermelon sundress and had to stop myself asking where she’d bought it.
I think it’s partly hot weather panic. Unaccustomed as we are in the UK to periods of consistent sunshine, we tend to feel the need to be acknowledging the sun at all times in case it thinks we’re ungrateful and goes away again. Thus our ‘fun’ outfits become an extension of the conversation; a way to continue saying “omg this WEATHER, eh?!” even while one’s mouth is full of Solero. You know when you go to Spain or Italy in the spring, and all the locals are casually wearing jeans, boots and gilets in 25 degree heat? It’s the opposite of that.
But also, it’s nice to take a break from (trying to look) chic and appropriate. Fashion could always use a bit more fun. When hot weather equals ‘all rules are off’ in so many other respects – day drinking, excessive hummus consumption, public mirth – it seems only fair that we should also be allowed to take a holiday from grown-up good taste. Life is short, summer is shorter and before you know it we’ll all be back in polonecks again.
That said, there are a few tricks to letting your inner toddler run riot while maintaining some semblance of style. Here’s my best advice to get the balance right. As Tyra Banks might say: kindergarten, but make it fashion.
For example, tempering your jolliest items with a pair of schlubby sandals. This is the real reason, I think, fashion embraced the pool slide – it’s an immediate, powerful dresser-downer. While your outfit might scream ‘I’ve had a whole bag of candy floss and I’m about to sick it up on a waltzer’, the right pair of low-key shoes can rein the whole look back in. Birkenstocks work too, as do trainers; you want something scruffy, sporty or determinedly practical. No bows, no kitten heels. Nothing cute.
I’ve also traded my usual rucksack, which was starting to look a bit ‘first day in the Upper Juniors!’, for a white string shopping bag – my logic being that adding a granny bag to my Crayola aesthetic might average me out to roughly the right age bracket. And if that doesn’t work, groaning every time I get up from a deck chair will.
Another tip is to ration the kitsch motifs. If there are pineapples all over your dress, probably don’t add palm tree shoes and a parrot handbag. One swallow doesn’t make a summer, but it does make a better summer outfit than a whole ark’s worth of twee animals. Shape makes a difference too; skater dresses always tend to look the most little-girly, but strappy slips and hip-skimming skirts are a cooler way to wear novelty prints. Mini and on-the-knee hemlines are also more likely to push things into nursery school territory, so choose a long midi like the mature lady you are.
I’m doing my best to live by the rule of accessories as famously decreed by Coco Chanel (a woman who probably didn’t dress like a toddler even when she was one): before leaving the house, take the last thing off again. Instead of reaching instinctively for giant tassel earrings, try delicate hoops. When the rest of your outfit is a screaming tantrum, bare décolletage can look more stylish than loading up on necklaces.
And finally, if none of this works, add a frozen margarita. That’s one summer accessory that will definitely remind you you’re a grown-up.