The Origins of the Summer Dress Are Still Relevant in 2022, and Here’s Why

by Karly Rayner

The shapeshifting summer dress has breezed through many incarnations, but crucial evolutionary touchpoints echo through the contemporary designs of 2022. 


Now the sunshine has finally shown its beaming face, a whole parade of summer frocks are sashaying from pierside to picnic table with influences from roaring ‘20s soiree to Y2K — and everything in between. 


While many of us have enjoyed the pastel, Empire line fantasy of Bridgerton this year, true summer wear has a shorter and less storied history than you might expect. The concept of a summer wardrobe only really emerged in the ‘20s as trendsetting socialites zipped off on resort holidays on the continent which made cool summer wear essential. 

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Lounging by the sea in heavy, English-weather-proof garms ​​à la Victorian seaside postcard was hardly a way to turn heads as a bold contemporary woman — and ‘resort wear’ was born. Among the pyjama pants and swimsuits were lightweight separates, pioneering the simple, relaxed sundress silhouette (and the concept of the capsule wardrobe — a collection of mix and match staples to enable the fashion-conscious woman to travel light).


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By the late ‘40s, the spirit of these original separates had stitched together into the sundress we know and love. After the second world war, there was an appetite for playful, colourful garments and the summer dress epitomised this. 


Image credit: The Vintage Woman

The vibrant colours and vibrant kaleidoscope of prints seen in ‘40s dresses still feels contemporary today. The summer dresses we see in 2022 might have toned down on the sweaty rayon, but the shapes and bold tones are still very much in Vogue. 


While the 1950’s were a largely similar fashion story for summer dresses — but with more fabric, because circle skirts — the late ‘50s saw the emergence of Lily Pulitzer’s sheaf dress. A stand out silhouette whose perennial charm still shines through in summer 2022. 


Image credit: Wikipedia


The preppy sheaf dress may be timeless, but it’s the bold, vibrant prints of Pulitzer’s sundrenched beach style which bloom and burst with vibrancy through summer 2022 — and pretty much every summer since their heyday. 


Fashions tend to rebel against the styles which preceded them; what was once revolutionary becomes conformist and new ideals and concepts emerge. The neat, contained preppy silhouette of Pulitzer’s signature style evolved into the free flowing unstructured boho shapes of Yves Saint Laurent’s game changing 1976 collection. 

Image credit: Tierry Magritte 

While the hip cats on the street had been wafting around in these styles for years before they made it to the somewhat slower catwalks, their moment bathing in fashion prestige certainly helped this counterculture staple to become an enduring summer dress template. Type ‘Summer dress 2022’ into Google and every single list is guaranteed to be populated by the great, great, great (x90 — we know how relentless fashion seasons are!) grandchildren of this collection. 


Puff sleeves and Maxi silhouettes are looming large in summer 2022 in a pleasing duality with the slinky ‘90s inspired cut out numbers which are also a big style replay. The vivid colours which are almost constant in the summer dress origin story are also here in a big way — both in ‘70s-style patterns and a more ‘80s block colour kind of way. 


We can’t talk about summer block colour without introducing white. While most of us Brits turn a blind eye to the ‘no white after Labour Day’ rule which has somehow snuck into the American style vernacular, to many, white is a sunshine colour best paired with a tan and some big sunglasses. 

Of course, the archetype of the summer dress isn’t just about patterns, colours and silhouettes, fabric plays a big part in what constitutes a summer garment. If you imagine the words ‘linen’ or ‘cotton’ (especially on a hot day) some of the first images which swim to the surface are probably crisp white pieces with a more relaxed silhouette. 


Linen is having a big moment in 2022, but that moment has been steadily swimming along for 5000 years. The earliest surviving linen garment is the Tarkhan Dress from Ancient Egypt, although this would be hard pressed to call itself a summer dress considering the balmy year round temperatures. 

Image credit: Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology via Gear Patrol

When shopping for dresses this summer, perhaps it is better to think of your choices as a timeless blend of the most iconic, enduring elements from preceding decades — or even centuries. Good fashion is perennial and faddish looks soon slop off the graveyard of gauche to expire. The best summer dresses channel their heritage while still looking as fresh as the lemon in your ice cold gin and tonic. Chin chin.


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