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With the summer heat officially here, sometimes there’s nothing more relaxing than a flowy dress to stay cool. And as things warm up and vaccines roll out, this unique season has some eager to throw on a dress and venture out for reunions. This joyous spirit is bringing along with it some new dress trends that are refreshing closets as people prepare to spend more time in the sun — according to safe social distance practices, of course.
If you’re looking to elevate your summer dressing beyond T-shirts and denim shorts, it could be time to take what we learned from 2020 fashion (comfort!) and fuse it with the spirit of 2021 (optimism!) for some new pieces that are worthy of celebration. We consulted experts on how to shop for the best summer dresses right now and compiled some highly rated options from retailers like Target, Amazon and Anthropologie.
SKIP AHEAD How to shop for summer dresses
These times are not built for complicated fashion...
Kathryn Sukey, Head of Design, Draper James
Best summer dresses in 2021
Experts we consulted about summer dresses noted various trends that are all about infusing joy into this season.
“Gone are the days of excessive buying and hoarding of garments that end up in landfills,” Jinaki designer Sharufa Rashied-Walker said. “Tie-dye, crochet, neon and statement sleeves are trends that are uplifting, colorful, fun and can provide some escapism or optimism for better days ahead. Stay-at-home ease is definitely here to stay for the summer and beyond.”
Tie-dye summer dresses
From a splash of bright colors that brighten moods to relaxing pastel hues, summer dresses are still all about the tie-dye print this summer.
Keep cool in this sleeveless maxi dress that comes in Blue and Coraloptions. Made from jersey knit, this comfortable dress can be dressed up for a party or dressed down for a day by the water.
Soak up the warm weather in this hand-dyed turquoise kaftan that can be worn as a dress or layered when it gets chillier. The lightweight piece is one size fits most and unisex. Taraji P. Henson, Amanda Seales and Teedra Moses have all sported designs from this Black female-owned brand.
Whether you have a weekend filled with errands or a busy day at work, this lightweight recycled cotton dress is an easy option to keep you covered yet cool in the blistering summer weather. From the crinkled fabric to the smocked waist and tiered skirt, this mini dress is a great option for a summer staple.
If the last time you wore tie-dye was when you went to summer camp, then consider this stylish-yet-classic “Natural Tie-Dye” dress from Asos. The A-line dress features a stretch, criss-cross back and square neckline that creates a beachy-meets-sophisticated look.
Neon summer dresses
Kathryn Sukey, head of design at Draper James, said she’s been seeing a desire for “optimism head-to-toe” reflected in major pops of color. People aren’t shying away from dresses that make a statement, and instead are rocking styles dripping in bold colors for an added boost of happiness wherever they can get it.
Make summer memories in this short tank dress with a round neckline and flirty ruffle detail at the sleeves. The loose A-line fit is both cool and comfortable while the seven vibrant color options make it pop. The mini dress is appropriate enough to rock during work video calls or to an outdoor dinner party with your loved ones.
Rock sunshine with every step in Eloquii’s wrap skirt dress in Hot Pink or Hawaiian Sunset. From the cuffed sleeves to the defining waist tie belt, this cotton dress is flattering and effortless.
Step up the drama with this stand-out mini shift dress that can go from day to night. The playful textured details scattered all over this sleeveless dress elevate it from a simple cotton look into a statement ensemble.
Summer dresses with puff sleeves
Mini dresses with puff sleeves in eye-catching prints and colors are dominating summer 2021. “They’re a little whimsical, a little ‘80s and a little extra, making them the perfect pick-me-up on a day when you need a bit of optimism,” Poshmark seller stylist Allyn Wang said.
Made from 100 percent cotton with elbow-length sleeves, this baby doll dress can keep you comfortable both in the summer heat as well as in cold air conditioning indoors. The long puff sleeves, V-neckline, pockets and vintage-inspired patterns make this loose-fitting dress both trendy and practical.
Bring the cheer in this vibrant floral dress with short puff sleeves, a ruffle hem and a button front. The A-line dress is knee-length and available in classic, petite and tall styles for the perfect fit.
This mini dress’s smocked banding at the bust and sweetheart tie neckline evokes major “Bridgerton” vibes. With short puff sleeves and ruffle cuffs, this summer white dress is great for anyone who likes to be on trend.
As people strive for comfort, one trend they’re embracing is crochet dresses. Not only does this style allow them to play around with bright color palettes or stick to a monochromatic look, but it also can feel akin to loungewear.
Bright crochet stripes give this sleeveless V-neck dress with a lace-up front a vintage feel. The asymmetrical hem and bow at the bust complete the playful feel.
Fall in love with both the soft color and delicate details that the floral and circular crochet detail gives this party dress. Worthy of any summer celebration, this on-trend style features a fitted corset bodice, tie straps and a flounce-finished skirt.
Zara’s tank-style crochet dress is a versatile and care-free option for a summer day or night out. The long green dress with a round neckline can be dressed down with a denim jacket or dressed up with strappy heels or chunky wedges.
A white loose crochet overlay sits atop a breezy lining, giving this sleeveless dress an airy vibe. This flowy midi dress with a scoop neckline has crochet panels along the tiered skirt and a scallop crochet detail at the waist for a polished yet laid-back feel.
Denim summer dresses
As many have traded in their jeans for sweatpants, denim has found a new home this season in dresses. From a dark wash take on the traditional wrap dress to denim shirt dresses that feature ruffles and dramatic sleeves, these stylish looks can be worn well into the fall, making them a lasting investment.
If you automatically associate denim dresses with Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake at the 2001 American Music Awards, you’re not alone. Fortunately, Asos put a modern spin on this mid-wash denim dress to combine two hot summer dress styles: denim and puff sleeves. Plus, it has pockets.
From the sweet ruffles at the hem to the flattering wrap silhouette, this cotton dress is timeless. The flutter sleeves add a playful touch for a polished-yet-casual summer staple.
The flounce sleeves and seaming detail on this faux wrap dress give an effortless look an elegant feel. Add a touch of color to your look with yellow drop-down earrings and your favorite long-lasting lipstick that won’t transfer onto your face mask, if you choose to wear makeup.
Comfortable summer house dresses
“For an easy transition out of pajamas into something that’s arguably more comfortable and certainly cute,” Matthew Friedman, a spokesperson for retailer Milly, said shoppers are looking toward house dresses. These styles, which are inspired by nightgowns and T-shirts, are just as easy to wear as loungewear but with the added bonus of dainty prints or a matching tie at the waist.
Whether you’re headed to a summer party or work meeting, you can stay comfortable yet put-together in this casual long dress. It’s made with a soft stretch fabric and has a matching belt for a cinched waist. Available in 26 colors and prints, you’ll likely find a colorway that complements your personal style.
Throw on this striped, rib-knit dress and be prepared to handle whatever the day throws your way — in comfort. From the short sleeves and crew neck to the defined waist and 100 percent cotton slub-knit jersey, it’s all about the little details that make this soft blue dress an easy win.
After more than a year of rocking quarantine comfort, you don’t have to give up on easy ensembles just because you’re heading out for some fresh summer air. This versatile sleeveless tank dress is an essential for everyday life this season that will help you combine comfort and fashion.
How to shop for summer dresses this year
With vaccines becoming more accessible right as the weather warms, this summer brings hope and is a time of celebration, explained Blaire Walsh, style director for Rent the Runway. “This summer’s trends are all about bold brights, breezy silhouettes and stylish finishing touches,” she said.
Starting with color, she said this season is all about opting for pieces that pack a punch. Standout hues include fluorescent pinks, oranges and yellows that can make this season’s frocks more fun than ever. “After a year of staying home in athleisure, women are excited to have a reason to get dressed and maximize every occasion,” she said. “It’s time to put away the sweats and wear clothing that brings joy.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, Walsh said that athleisure and sweats were more popular than ever before — the style was up 44 percent on Rent the Runway in 2020 compared to the previous year. “Come summer 2020, we saw an uptick in dresses as the weather got warmer, mainly the ‘house dress’ — consumers needed that feeling of getting dressed up but also made sure to stick to comfort,” she said. “As we get closer to a fully vaccinated society, we’re getting back into dresses, jumpsuits, rompers, even bringing out handbags.”
As we begin exploring the wardrobes we neglected over the last year and reintroduce pieces back into the rotation, Rashied-Walker said that it will be all about looking at the dress categories we "shelved." “Weddings, graduations, birthday celebrations and family events are back on and there is great excitement to break out your best and make it a fashion moment,” she said. “We haven't experienced this type of excitement, freedom, and creativity in our daily fashion in a long time.”
Dresses shopping tips
As you shop for summer dresses, here are some things to keep in mind:
Go for the practical. “These times are not built for complicated fashion — seek out brands that have a consistent fit, silhouettes that flatter your body type and color palettes and prints that lift your spirits,” said Sukey. “If you look good, you feel good and you can go out into the world to do good.”
Take a chance. Right now is the perfect moment to be experimental with your personal style, said Wang, and anything that boosts your mood goes. “If you want to wear a maxi dress while watching Netflix, go for it. If you want to wear heels with a matching sweat suit to get the mail, do it,” she said. Focus on what sparks joy. It’s very important to buy items that will make you feel good and that you love. “If you are going to spend money on clothes, the number one rule is to ‘feel you’ and be comfortable,” added stylist and designer Paulina Castro.
Picture how you’ll wear it. “Look for practical pieces that you can wear in many different ways and different occasions with items that you already own in your closet,” said Castro.
Go for transitional pieces. Castro recommends choosing pieces that you can wear from daytime to evening to help make life a bit easier.
Avoid buying items just because they’re trendy. Instead, when you try clothes on, look for pieces, fabrics and colors that flatter your figure and accentuate your features. This way, you will get the most wear out of whatever it is you’re investing in.