A few days before New York City announced its first case of coronavirus, back when I was still going into work and riding the subway, back when my friends who work at restaurants or event planning still had jobs, I bought a pastel pink maxi dress at a vintage store.
I didn’t need it. But it has ruffles on the hem, and pockets. As I stared at myself in the fitting room mirror, visions of a summer flashed before me: how the dress would match my favorite picnic blanket, how the breezy cotton would feel against my skin, how I could wear it with chunky wedges, or no shoes at all, my bare feet planted against the grass. Suddenly, I had every reason in the world to get the dress. My biggest concern was maybe staining it with an ice cream from a Mr. Softee truck.
Last night, stuck sheltering in place for the foreseeable forever, I put it on to do my dishes.
According to the weathermen I glare at while they read off the 60 degree forecasts, sundress season is upon us. But unlike past years, I’m not stockpiling things to wear. “Summer Essentials” once meant sleeveless tops appropriate for both the office and a backyard party; now my heart skips a beat if I see my grocery store has restocked its paper towel supply.
Spending money on anything that’s not edible or rent feels reckless and vaguely disrespectful, especially as I’ve spent five out of the past seven days picking up calls from friends who have just been laid off.
“People are more likely to be buying homebound things like robes, pajamas, and tank tops, especially when you look at stuff not on sale,” Elizabeth Shobert, vice president of marketing and digital strategy for the retail analytics company StyleSage, told me. “When you look at what is on sale and what’s selling out, dresses fare a bit better, but they’re still down on the lists of products selling out.”
When cases first started to ramp up in the middle of March, my inbox was flooded with emails from every store I’d ever shopped at promising they were taking all necessary precautions to protect staff and slow the spread. Now, every few minutes I receive notice of a new sale. Spring dresses are up to 60 percent off at Nordstrom, Urban Outfitters has slashed 40 percent off prices, and Fashion Nova’s sale code is “STAYIN80,” a nod to statewide lockdowns.
Summer dresses have always been a purchase treading the line between necessity and fantasy; we buy them for the promise of times to come, but also because high temperatures make wearing anything other than soft cotton damn near impossible.
“Sundress season is the best season, and I refuse to believe it is happening,” one of my quarantined friends said. “The world is going to get these outfits even if I can’t leave my living room. I’m going to be seen.”
Charcy Evers, a retail trend analyst isolating with her family in New Jersey, is still shopping. As we spoke on the phone for this story, she told me she was waiting on a UPS delivery from various independent clothing stores.
“I’ve always used fashion as a tool for a pick-me-up,” Evers said. “As I receive new items, I’m putting them on. It’s a way of making yourself feel better, and spring is a hopeful time of year anyway. I’m the type of ‘dress and the party will come’ kind of person. If I’m really excited about something, I’ll buy it, regardless of what’s happening.”
Kate Williams, a publicist based in New York, has kept her Rent the Runway unlimited subscription through the quarantine. “I’ve been picking pieces that are brightly patterned sun dresses or jumpsuits from Ulla Johnson, Carolina K, and Banjanan,” she told me. “I realize keeping a fashion subscription when no one can see it is a bit ridiculous and comes from a place of privilege, but it’s curbing my online shopping habit and bringing a sense of sunshine to a weird time.”
With graduations and proms suddenly cancelled, students who already purchased their occasion dresses now have the ghost of a postponed milestone hanging in their closets. Lucy Hopwood studies journalism at Leeds Beckett University in England. She bought two options for a ceremony that might not happen.
Her favorite is a ruched lilac bodycon number from Oh Polly. “It’s my favorite color and it seems to be really in this summer,” Hopwood told The Daily Beast. “I fell in love with it the second I saw [the brand] promoting it as one of their new releases.”
The dress arrived three weeks ago, and until this week Hopwood left it sitting in its packaging. “I’ve not wanted to try it on knowing that I won’t be graduating in it this summer,” she said. She only tried it on because the deadline to return it was approaching, and she wanted to see how it fit. It looks great. Hopwood is “gutted” she doesn’t have a set date to celebrate in it.
“I’m still keeping my fingers crossed that graduation can be arranged for sometime later this summer and I’ll still be able to wear it,” she said. “I’m not sure if I could bring myself to wear it to a different event due to the bittersweet feeling of knowing it was meant to be for my graduation. But who knows—if the right event comes along, I’d like to think that I’ll still be able to show the dress off as I wanted to.”
So the summer dress continues to be a harbinger of better days, even if we’re unsure of when they’ll arrive. A friend told me that when she goes to bed now, she dreams of parks. “Just think of all the skirts and legs there will be in parks when this is over,” she said. We both can’t wait.