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How to Look Good While Wearing Less This Summer

What to wear when layers aren't an option

Caucasian couple jogging with dog on beach

Ariel Skelley/Blend Images

At long last, summer is finally here.

But as much as we may all love sunshine, barbecues and blooming gardens, the season has a hitch: It's much easier to dress well when it's cold. Layering, texture and luxe fabrics all work in our favor. Looking good when wearing less is trickier, especially when you're not as open to the idea of strutting around clad only in a bikini or a Speedo.

Not to worry. The following are options, parameters, fabrics, silhouettes and staples that will work for almost everyone, living almost everywhere, from July 4 to Labor Day.

First, however, here are some things you'd be wise NOT to wear this summer.

1. Your favorite old T-shirt, because, trust me, it is no one else's. Save that beloved, shapeless, faded sack for gardening, or cleaning the picnic table. No, it's not an old friend. It's a ratty old cloth.

2. If you are not on a beach or in your backyard, then flip-flops of the plastic, rubber, ph-tunk-ph-tunk variety have no business being seen on your feet on a city street, in a public space, against the back of a plane or movie seat, or at a cocktail party. Not only are they cheesy and cheap, sound awful and demand that you have a killer pedicure, but it is physically impossible to walk in them and maintain good posture.

3. Unless you won't be packing it, sweating in it, sitting on it or eating while wearing it, stay away from linen. For some reason, Europeans seem to have the panache for pulling off wrinkled linen. We Americans love looking neat and pressed too much. With linen, it's impossible. It's also less cool than it looks. Avoid pure linen unless you are obsessed with the accordion or enjoy spending a good part of your summer driving to the dry cleaners.

4. Seersucker is regarded as a summer classic, yet it never feels great against the body, is as sexy as orthopedic shoes, is murder to press, and looks as modern as a shortwave radio. Unless you are a waiter in Nantucket or featured in a community theater production of The Music Man, get through summer without it.

5. Cargo shorts. No. They look awful and stunting on everyone and have no reason to be in your wardrobe, unless you have inarguable reasons for putting things in pockets that end just above the kneecap, or expect to spend a good part of the summer shoplifting.

A pair of white Adidas Stan Smith sneakers

Monika Skolimowska/picture alliance via Getty Images

Here are some better options:

1. Think cotton — for everything: shirts, dresses, jackets, knitwear, you name it. Cotton is summer's godsend. It breathes, it's lightweight, holds color, is almost always washable. And 100 percent cotton is the most comfortable fabric you can wear in warm weather.

2. When you buy T-shirts, look for Pima cotton. They may cost a few dollars more, but they are worth it; they slide down the body like silk. Armani A/X, Bombas and Mack Weldon (for men only) make some of the best and most affordable.

2. For men and women, three colors of jeans — black, white and deep indigo — will get you through the whole season and should be the first items you put in a suitcase. And when we say jeans, we mean skinny and slim-fit jeans, for both sexes, regardless of your size, sex or age. If you're uneasy with fabric so close to your skin, then straight leg cut will do. Under no circumstances, not even if they are on sale for $5, are you to buy relaxed fit. They look good on no one and will add five to 10 pounds as well as five years.

3. Though denim jeans hold their shape (and your backside) best, they can also feel heavy when the temperature and humidity climb. Denim is cotton, but cotton isn't necessarily denim, and cotton jeans, like the ones sold at Uniqlo and several brands at Macy's, including Lee, are more lightweight, effortless and even easier to pack. Since they do tend to shrink more, keep them out of a hot dryer, and pull the legs to reshape and extend the length as soon as the cycle stops.

5. The other fabric perfect for cooler summer days and nights is merino wool. Merino is a much finer fiber than other wools. It is not itchy, wicks moisture, and best of all, grazes the body, hiding lumps and bumps, while enhancing your shape. Merino wool sweaters, cardigans and dresses are perfect for the season and are available at every price point from Duckworth, H&M and L.L. Bean to Adam Lippes and Michael Kors.

6. Shorts, of course, are necessary, and while you may claim to hate your hips and/or your knees, the silhouette, like cotton jeans, should be slim cut for all, and stop somewhere mid-thigh, depending on your height.

Man in a cafe shopping online with credit card

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7. Whatever kind of sneaker is your preference — Plimsoll, slip-ons, athletic kicks, trainers, or classic high-tops — make sure this summer it is all white. You can buy them for $50 from Sperry or Nike. Nothing will look smarter or cleaner on your feet this season.

Several ways to keep your sneakers clean:

a. Use a clean shoe brush. First dry. Then use it damp with a bit of dishwashing soap.

b. When new, spray them with a dirt repellent like Crep Protect.

c. Mr. Clean Magic Eraser is incredibly effective, even on leather.

d. Canvas and knit shoes can be thrown in the wash. Do not dry on high, and add a towel to the cycle or the noise will drive you mad.

8. Buy the coolest sunglasses you can afford, because no summer accessory matters more. You don't have to spend a fortune. The range is enormous, from Quay of Australia for about $50, to Warby Parker at $100, to Tom Ford hovering around $450. As for whether to opt for round, horn-rimmed, aviators or wraparounds, barely tinted or mirrored (ugh!), the choice is up to you. So many factors go into choosing the right lenses: the height of your brow, the placement of your cheekbones, the width of your nose bridge, the shape of your jaw. It is always a trial, error and success process.

Finally, because many of us are at the age where we walk into a room and can't remember why we ventured there, buy lens straps to wear around your neck. They don't make you look old. They make you smart, because they can save you both grief and a lot of money. Enjoy your summer.

Hal Rubenstein is a founding editor of InStyle and former restaurant critic for New York magazine. He is the author of five books, including 100 Unforgettable Dresses.

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