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Content young black woman in dress chilling in summer field

David Espejo

I’ve always been a feast-or-famine dater. But between this endless pandemic, quitting drinking and my almost-physical aversion to dating apps, I really don’t get out much these days. 

Before you send condolences, it’s fine. I truly prefer watching HBO’s “Southside” reruns to jibber jabbering with underwhelmers over appetizers. 

That said, I will admit to one major flaw of not dating: It begets more not-dating. When you don’t put on cute clothes, leave your house and try to connect with people you’re interested in, you fall prey to the siren song of no fucks. Your sole criteria for draws is “clean.” Your cuticles get raggedy. You celebrate your fuck-bereftness by charging your new adult toys on your coffee table

Still, even a savage like me knows that the universe won’t send me any chocolatey goodness if I don’t meet it halfway. 

Enter the sundress …

Mini or maxi, fitted or flowy, scientific studies I just made up prove that a dress made for the sun is inherently seductive. Think about it: A sundress has no choice but to show somebody some things. It could be a greased up Michelle Obama leg, some sneak cleavage or that lower back tat you stand by despite years of tramp-stamp shaming. Florals and wax prints commune with your brown and browning skin. You get the delicious softness and the sharpness of the clavicle in one fit. 

Black fashion historian Tanisha Ford shared an interesting observation via email correspondence, noting “the language ‘sundress’ does and doesn’t appear in fashion culture.” Ford considers the word sundress “a broad catch-all term to describe a dress worn in warm weather, usually with thin straps and made out of a thin, lightweight fabric.” 

Ford continued, breaking down how the clothing industry classifies the beloved sundress:

In various moments, the language ‘maxi-dress’ became popular to describe the ultra long sundress. Or like a fitted sundress usually isn’t labeled a sundress, but in the 90s we called them body dresses or today ‘body con’ or ‘bandage,’” In the 1960s, the language ‘mini-dress’ was also common. Or sundresses that are short and straight-lined might be called a shift dress.” So, what I’m saying is the fashion world often breaks [out] that big umbrella label of sundress into specific styles.”

Despite how the industry chooses to broadly categorize sundresses, its cultural identity within Black culture is well-established. Equally intriguing is how one sundress can tell multiple stories about you. In 90-degree weather, a sundress telegraphs practicality — you’re hot as shit; less fabric just makes sense. At the same time a sundress can convey openness, especially when you duck into the bathroom, pull the front down an inch and pretend like you’ve had that much cleavage the whole night. And if things go left, you can always signal your dissent by mummifying your shoulders in a shawl for the rest of the evening.

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There are so many things to mourn in this world, I enjoy seeing my sundresses as talismans of Black love. Maxi-dresses have the most soul. I have zero proof that a Black person who delighted in seeing and touching Black bodies invented these garments. But according to Ford, who is also a professor and the author of Dressed in Dreams: A Black Girl’s Love Letter to the Power of Fashion, they have clear roots in African and Caribbean style. 

“When I think of the sundress in terms of fashion history, I think of the rise of resort wear and cruise collections. Of course, much of this resort wear was based on the garments worn by people of African descent, particularly in Africa and the Caribbean,” wrote Ford in an email interview. “They wore such dresses practically all year round due to the weather in those locations. Resort wear “exoticized” these dresses — the ways they fit the curvy Black body, their textiles — and then presented them on the bodies of White models.” 

In other words, Black women have played a vital role in the rise of the sundress, like how light bulbs wouldn’t be affordable without Lewis Latimer’s carbon filament and GPS wouldn’t exist without Gladys West’s leadership. 

Black women have a particular lock on the maxi-dress, says Ford. “This style of sundress became very popular among Black women in the United States in the 1960s and ‘70s. Entertainers such as Nina Simone, Miriam Makeba, Aretha Franklin, Jean Pace and others were also wearing this look at the time. Pam Grier brought a particular kind of sultry energy to those dresses. She often wore sundresses that were low-cut to show off her cleavage or with thigh cutouts to accentuate her legs.” 

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Today we use these frocks as shorthand for romance. Think A$AP Rocky’s “Sundress,” a cool kid’s tale of unrequited love that doesn’t actually contain the word “sundress” in the lyrics.

Others like Shelley FKA DRAM offer a more direct (and hornier) approach. In his “Sundress,” he sings, “Look at that girl in the sundress [and how it get stuck between]/ Look at that girl in the sundress [damn her walk is mean]./ Look at that girl in the sundress [Ah, she’s all alone]/Look at that girl in the sundress [woman come on home].” 

While I prefer my summer dress odes to be more subtle, (see “Sundress (Remix)” by Atlanta’s Jermaine Hardsoul featuring Algebra Blessett), there is just something about a Black man who loves a Black woman in a sundress — and a Black woman who knows what she’s doing when she puts one on. It’s good and grown, like a full beard, private jokes and long walks with your fingertips touching his.

As the writer and self-described sundress connoisseur Àdísà Àjàmú recently posted on the socials: “One of [the] beauties of sundresses is that they are democratic—there is a style for every body type. “Also, the gloriousness of sundresses may be the one thing Black men and Black women can agree on,” he quipped before punctuating his joke with the obligatory “lol.”

Sundress Season

Source: Courtesy of Akiba Solomon / Akiba Solomon

Of course we all know that Black men and women agree on millions of other things. But a sundress invites you to take a quick break. Picture it as your superpower. And then twirl.

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