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I ask a lot from my clothes. I require them to help me put my best foot forward and garner me a certain level of treatment from the world at large. More than this, I’d like them to say that anything that’s ever gone wrong in my life, well, none of it was my fault. I want them to assert that I am blameless and irreproachable. Unimpeachable, even. Clothes that defend me in this way may have to be strict. They need to be well-made, knowing, slightly humourless perhaps, but I can usually provide the humour myself so that’s all right.
Summer dressing, however, is different. I think the nicest summer clothes exist outside fashion. If I like my autumn and winter clothing to show that I am keeping up or clinging on, these signs would seem brash and crass coming from summer wear. On warm days I want a charming dress with washed-out fabric that makes you think of a contented sigh.
I like soft clothes, seaside-y garments, plaid shirts, a floral print faded to an almost colourless hue, carefree pieces to loll and lark in. I don’t look to summer clothes for ballast or armour. In fact, I like garments that from a distance seem as though they might have been made from tablecloths (like the dress shown below, by Margaret Howell, queen of timeless summer clothes): white cotton or linen damask fabrics, blue-and-white stripes and red-and-white checks. I’m thinking of Olivia de Havilland in Dodge City mixed with Nastassja Kinski in Tess and, of course, a little Kansas gingham. I like Aertex school-uniform sports shirts. I have one with my initials embroidered on the collar, from 30 years ago, that I still occasionally wear. For evenings, in summer, I like a milkmaid de luxe look with a bit of springy lace or broderie anglaise.
Summer clothes should never be self-important. They should be relaxed, where “I give up!” meets the command of “at ease”. I like them to resemble night clothes. When I was much younger and poorer, the nightwear floor of department stores produced a few silk party “dresses” for warm nights . . .
Hot-weather clothes particularly need to flop and fray very slightly; ideally they should have memories of summers past woven into their hems. I didn’t have the kind of childhood where you went to the same place every year, plundered the same rock pool, rode the same donkey, but I like a nod to this in summer clothes.
I like the idea of a dress whose fabric has turned ombre or puckered like seersucker due to paddling in the sea, or being pushed into a swimming pool. I like the idea of well-mended clothes with a cheerful zigzag of darning over a rip from a pebbly bike ride. I like the look of checks on a once-crisp summer skirt that have bled into each other because you handwashed it in a hotel basin, ignoring the dry-clean-only label. I like garments so well-loved and laundered that they are approaching their last legs and are worn with a consciousness that there will only be four or five more chances.
Dressing for weddings and summer parties or events that require a bit more formality is not so simple. Nothing nightie-ish will do, but any simple, solid, pretty, knee-length dress, worn now, can’t help but summon the idea of Kate Middleton. I have nothing against her, and think her decision to wear sensible, demure, neat clothes is a very very good one, but I don’t want anything I wear to make me think of the oath I took as a Brownie: “I promise that I will do my best, to love my God, to serve my Queen and my country, to help other people”. This, to me, is what the Duchess of Cambridge’s outfits proclaim.
I notice this season that skirts and tops rather than dresses seem to be in fashion, and the dresses that do crop up look severe or have straps and loops and unexpected gathers that would have no Duchess appeal. This year, when looking for what the shops call “occasion wear”, I have the feeling we’re all meant to ask ourselves: “What wouldn’t Kate do?”
I wore a coral lace A-line dress to a wedding recently that ran the risk of being Middletonian and halfway through I wished I’d gone for something more eccentric.
“Coral? It’s radish!” my daughter said, which helped a little bit.