The sundress discourse, explained


Sundresses in a row

A bunch of sundresses (or are they?)

Much like “is a hot dog a sandwich” or “does not liking Taylor Swift mean you hate women” (no and no), “sundress season” is one of those things that sparks perennial debate on the internet. The term entered the popular imagination in 2010, when an episode of How I Met Your Mother had Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) extolling the virtues of the garment. “The sundresses, Ted! I don’t think I can make it another eight months with no sundresses,” he says, then poses a riddle: “What piece of women’s attire most stokes a man’s desire?” “What lightweight outfit, pink or white, makes the front of my slacks abnormally tight?”

The answer, of course, is the sundress, which has claimed cult status among horny straight men ever since and still, more than a decade later, manages to drive online debate. “When you realize it’s almost sundress season,” reads the caption of one viral TikTok of a man smiling in the grass and listening to Natasha Bedingfield’s “Pocketful of Sunshine.” “If you’re a lady watching this, do your man a favor and buy ‘em all,” said another

But like, what is a sundress? In mid-April, Jacqueline Ryan, a 24-year-old in Baltimore, posed the question to her TikTok following. “I see all these videos of men saying how much they love sundresses,” she said, “What is a sundress? I own every dress. Which one is the sun one?” The video ended up getting more than 9 million views, but even after thousands of comments, no one could provide a definitive answer


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♬ original sound – Let’s Be Foreal

That’s when Randy Trembacki, a 30-year-old video producer in Austin, replied with a lengthy video, complete with visual aids, to show what he believed men thought of when they spoke excitedly about sundress season: a mini-dress with a fitted top and flowy bottom, usually in bright colors or floral print. “I’m not a psychiatrist, but I think it’s a mixture of the [fact that] it’s cute and also sexy at the same time, but without being trashy,” he says over the phone when I ask why men keep talking about them. “It accentuates the female form, but in a conservative way.”

This, to some, wasn’t quite telling the whole story. Black women and men clarified that when they talk about “sundress season,” they’re referring to dresses that are tight not only in the bodice but fitted all the way through the skirt. “This is the dress that men break their necks to look at,” one TikToker explained while wearing a stretchy, form-fitting maxi-length dress. The thirst account @SundressSzn has been posting examples of women wearing these types of dresses since 2010. 

Nikki Martin, a fit expert who has worked in the fashion industry for two decades, says she can understand the confusion among people from different backgrounds or generations. “There’s a difference between your granny saying ‘sundress’ and the kid from Harlem or Brooklyn saying ‘sundress season,’” she explains. “It’s taken on a new meaning in African American culture for a certain generation.”

“I call it the Skims takeover,” she adds, referring to Kim Kardashian’s brand of skin-tight dresses and sets. “You have the younger generation where now everything is Skims, bodycon, and tight, and so people don’t necessarily adhere to the correct terminology. They think everything is now a sundress.”

Her TikTok video explained that the term “sundress” actually does have a specific meaning and a clear history. A sundress is sleeveless, lightweight, and casual, usually with a more fitted bodice and a skirt that flows outward. There’s a specific reason for this: The sundress as we know it today was born in postwar America, when designers began to target an active consumer base with more leisure time than ever. The resulting category — sportswear — would provide the foundations of American fashion for the next century, and remains what most people today wear. Designers like Claire McCardell and Carolyn Schnurer were particularly responsible for the silhouette and feel of the sundress, designed to be “unfussy, required minimal foundation garments and could be worn for a variety of occasions,” according to The Met

“There’s a difference between your granny saying ‘sundress’ and the kid from Harlem or Brooklyn saying ‘sundress season’”

By the ’60s, Florida socialite Lilly Pulitzer reimagined the sundress to be even looser and more casual, meant to be worn without the girdles, slips, or longline bras popular into the decade (Pulitzer herself ensured they were double-lined so that she could go without underwear). Unlike the stiff cotton poplin Pulitzer’s dresses were made of, modern clothing tends to be stretchier and more fitted, made with polyester, viscose, and other fabrics that are cheap to produce but terrible for the environment. That’s the thing about fashion: It changes, and yesterday’s sundress won’t necessarily be tomorrow’s. 

The reason we’re talking about sundresses at all is not because of the evolution of women’s fashion but because of the male gaze. Sundress discourse, especially when men are driving it, feels reminiscent of an earlier era, one where women’s magazines regularly touted features about “what guys REALLY think of your outfit” and offered advice on how to dress “for your man.” That doesn’t happen as much anymore; social media ushered in an era of wider understanding of feminism and body positivity, which the media and entertainment industries reflected and sold back to us. Since then, viral “horny” clothing items have usually been ones worn by men to be admired by women and gay men, from gray sweatpants to thigh-baring short shorts to the guy from Normal People’s chain necklace

We’re currently in a strange era of online gender dynamics, though, with some research showing that young women are leaning more progressive while young men are heading to the right. This has created a renewed appetite for gender essentialist rhetoric by both men and women (take a look at any of the most viral “dating advice” content for a sample of this sort of nihilistic, “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” viewpoint). The result is a brewing gender war, fueled in part by a backlash against Me Too, with influencers gaining clout by spouting controversial takes on sex and gender norms.

“I think men are becoming more vocal about their opinions online,” says Ryan when I ask why the “sundress season” discourse seems to be more potent this year. Take, for instance, the man who went viral for complaining about “these fucking wrestling singlets” that he saw women wearing (by which he means athleisure onesies and sets). “It’s sundress season, baby, come on! Us men are waiting, bring ’em out!” he said. 

That guy was rightfully roasted in the comments section, but the popularity of his video shows that when we talk about sundresses, what we’re really talking about is who gets to decide what women put on their bodies, and for what purpose. How I Met Your Mother’s resident sleaze discussing sexy sundresses played as a standard sitcom joke in 2010, but in 2024, women are more likely to be asking, “Why on earth should I care what a man thinks about my clothes?” It’s a common refrain for men to say that they love sundresses because they provide “easy access” to sex. It’s just as easy to imagine that being a reason why a woman might not want to wear one, so as to avoid being sexualized. These days, a man on the internet complaining that women aren’t wearing sundresses like they used to reads as reactionary, trad, or antifeminist, not that he appreciates women. 

It was never really about sundresses, then. Martin guesses that the men involved in the sundress debate, if you can call it that, don’t really care about the precise definition anyway. “People are saying, ‘Look, lady, we don’t give a damn what a sundress is. We just want to see you walk by.’” “At the end of the day, I think everyone should wear whatever they consider a sundress this summer, and we’re all gonna be happy,” echoes Trembacki. This year, though, it’s more of a loaded decision than ever. 

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