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It's too hot. Our sundress season of discontent isn't helping

A woman on TikTok asked: What is a sundress? Ten million views later, the debate is still raging. Above, Four models in summer dresses in 1972.
Evening Standard
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images
A woman on TikTok asked: What is a sundress? Ten million views later, the debate is still raging. Above, Four models in summer dresses in 1972.

“What is a sundress?” wondered a young woman in plaintive tones on TikTok. “I own every dress. Which is the sun one?”

Nearly 10 million views later, that burning question continues to light up social media. Reaction videos included an influencer in Atlanta spelling out how “sundress season” in her Black community means Skims-style dresses that are long and tight, rather than flowy skirts with a fitted bodice. A good-natured, self-described mansplainer admitted that, although no expert in women’s fashion, he knows what he likes. Specifically, what he called “milkmaid style” dresses, preferably in yellow. “Cause we are simple,” he says. “Yellow, sun.”

Taylor Swift at The CMA Music Festival on June 13, 2010 in Nashville, Tenn.
Rick Diamond / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Taylor Swift at The CMA Music Festival on June 13, 2010 in Nashville, Tenn.

Which cuts to the crux of the sundress stakes. It’s not just what a sundress is, says Vox writer Rebecca Jennings. It’s who a sundress is for.

“Some men were complaining that women aren’t wearing sundresses ‘like they used to,’” Jennings notes. “Which feels like a very reactionary response to changing gender dynamics.”

Models Endy Cartnell (left) and Selina, on the King's Road, Chelsea, London in 1973.
John Minihan / Hulton Archive/ /Getty Images
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Hulton Archive/ /Getty Images
Models Endy Cartnell (left) and Selina, on the King's Road, Chelsea, London in 1973.

Jennings traced the early days of what we now call the sundress in an expansively researched essay called “The sundress discourse, explained.” The garment, she wrote, became a summer staple in the postwar period, popularized by pioneering female sportswear designers such as Claire McCardell and Carolyn Schnurer.

“They’re dresses that were meant to be worn without these fussy undergarments,” she explains, meaning without girdles or even pantyhose. The designer Lilly Pulitzer, known for her bright prints and boutique-y brand, helped make sundresses, at first a style associated with children, respectable even for grown women.

A mother and daughter in 1955.
Chaloner Woods / Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images
A mother and daughter in 1955.

The sundress as male fetish object joined the cultural conversation through the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, Jennings says. In a 2010 episode, the resident toxic male creep does a whole bit about sundresses. And since then, the mainstream cultural discourse around the sundress has changed accordingly, as reflected in some of the TikTok videos responding to the original query.

Disputes over sundresses right now are really about contemporary concerns, Jennings suggests, ranging from fast fashion to obsessions over gender norms. But, she adds, none of this should stop sundress fans from reaching for that lightweight little frock in the closet designed with hot weather in mind. “It’s not the sundress’s fault,” she points out, with a laugh.

American actress, singer and dancer Marpessa Dawn pictured on a balcony on June 1st, 1960.
Evening Standard/Getty Images / Hulton Archive
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Hulton Archive
American actress, singer and dancer Marpessa Dawn pictured on a balcony on June 1st, 1960.

Edited for radio and the web by Jennifer Vanasco.

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Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.