Some types of fashion work best with a dash of irony. Case in point: the floral dress. I love a floral dress in the summer. Who doesn’t? It’s a classic. Look around any office, any train, any park and you will see women covered in daisies and roses, in blowsy painterly blooms or carpeted with ditsy sprigs.
But the best accessory to a floral dress is not a flatform sandal or hoop earrings. It is a tongue worn in one’s cheek. A dash of irony makes the difference between looking like a Sally Rooney character headed to a steamy assignation in the park, and, in the same dress, looking like the Countess of Wessex about to open a garden centre.
At the risk of coming over all Alanis Morissette, it seems that irony is part of how lots of us dress, especially in summer. I mean, can we talk about the milkmaid blouse? The moment the sun comes out, every commuter train is full of puff-sleeved gingham blouses accessorised with a basketweave handbag. But the vibe is very much “I’m enjoying a little pastoral cosplay en route to my next meeting” rather than straight-from-the-farm.
When you wear a floral dress, the implications are a little more subtle. A floral dress can be a signifier of an Englishwoman’s summer wardrobe. It can be cricket teas and striped deckchairs. But it’s also everywhere: in every cafe, in every airport lounge. So when you or I wear a floral dress, it requires just a subtle vibe shift to clarify that you are making a knowing wink to homemade-jam-at-the-fete, rather than dressing for the actual fete.
Age is no barrier to looking modern in florals, either. Think of Iris Apfel, the 100-year-old maverick fashion influencer, recently photographed wearing a riot of applique multicoloured pansies, a string of turquoise beads the size of eggs, an armful of bangles and her trademark owl-eye sunglasses. But it is undeniable that the further away one gets from being of an age that has plausible Rooney main-character energy – which is what we’re going for in our floral dresses, right? – the more it is necessary to spell out that a flowery calf-length dress is being worn in a spirit of enjoyable but lighthearted nostalgia rather than because we’re stuck in a period-drama time warp.
We can’t all be Iris. Besides, such full-volume flamboyance isn’t everyone’s style. But she makes a case for leaning into emphatic, high-energy florals to keep the mood modern. For example: peonies, sunflowers, daisies and hydrangeas are distinctive and graphic, and look instantly modern. It is trickier to make a floral dress with a small print look modern. The ethereal, blowaway vibe of a dandelion and the impressionist blur of meadow flowers are all glorious in a landscape, but retreat into anonymity as a dress print. They are background noise – and we want to feel front and centre.
Whatever blooms are on your favourite floral dress, you can still style it in a way that makes it clear that the cycling-through-the-village thing is a fashion reference rather than a literal dress code. You are probably doing this anyway, in a way you don’t even think of as styling. When you wear your floral dress with a blazer to work; when you wear it with sport socks and Birkenstocks on a Saturday – that is styling, right there. And that’s before you tie a scarf around your ponytail or a sweater in a clashing colour around your shoulders.
Like I said, I love a floral dress, and I always will. But almost everything in life is tastier with a pinch of salt.
Hair and make up: Sophie Higginson using hair by Sam McKnight; floral dress: Laura Mercier, ghost.co.uk; jacket: jigsaw-online.com