Lady Louise Windsor (right) in the Kumiko Iris Silk Dress

Seasonal style

Picking the right outfit for summer socials


This article is taken from the July 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Age. it does things to you. One minute, one has no idea what “the season” is, reserving summer for sex and sleep. The next, one is hobbing one’s nob off with the rest of the ton at flower shows, picnics purporting to be country-house opera, and wedding after interminable wedding.

From the seventeenth century onwards, landowning clans left their country piles in late spring to amuse themselves while their menfolk festered about Parliament. Think parties and picnics, bashes and balls, sporting, gardening and “artistic” events (term used necessarily loosely). Between the end of Easter until no later than August 12th, anyone who was anyone could be found doing everything; then headed north to kill stuff.

Balzac’s 1837 novel, La Muse du département, features a scathing account of this brief spell in which aristocratic Britain set itself at play:

London is the capital of shops and of speculation, the government is made there. The aristocracy inscribes itself there only during sixty days, it there takes its orders, it inspects the government kitchen, it passes in review its daughters to marry, and equipages to sell, it says good-day and goes away promptly; it is so little amusing that it supports itself only for the few days called the season. 

Many of us still can’t take much of it. Habits began to change after the First World War, when aristocratic families gave their great London houses the shove, meaning the focus fell on public events such as Henley and the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. 

A century on, it has become customary to refer to the “new” season, incorporating not merely Ascot’s regulation skirt lengths, but the grubby sequins and painted faces of more tree- hugging gatherings. Witness Mark Carney, then Governor of the Bank of England, donning a glitter tattoo for Wilderness in 2016. Tatler includes August’s piss-drenched Notting Hill Carnival. After which the season staggers into autumn: the motors and retro rig-outs of September’s Goodwood Revival, and freezing at Frieze London come October.

For those who worry about this sort of thing — and, really, isn’t that all of us, vaguely? — this has made the issue of how to dress ever more unfathomable. How can one bask cool, correct and protected on lawns so muddy they resemble the Somme, marquees that turn glacial as day gives way to night? The festive season yields a weight of options for what is really just lunch plus a couple of drunken brawls. Yet, when it comes to summer, sartorially we prefer to look the other way for something that drags on for months.

Metallic Madrid Coat Dress

Had I the means, I would seek out a Suzannah confection, created by luxury dress designer Suzannah Crabb, who supplies bluebloods with their garb for such occasions. I first spotted her artistry on professional Diana bridesmaid India Hicks, sporting an exquisitely-tailored, icy metallic Madrid Coat Dress (£2,590, to commentate on the Coronation for the Beeb. Man, it was terrific — with a sexy-demure vibe that spelled total scene- stealing. 

Edward’s daughter, Lady Louise Windsor, sported another Suzannah showstopper, the picture-pretty Kumiko Iris Silk Dress (£1,290). While Sophie, Duchess of Edinburgh, was resplendent in an embroidered couture gown by Suzannah’s Atelier at 3-4 Berkeley Mews. (Check out the atelier collection online and expire with joy.) The dresses have a vintage sensibility without being cartoonish, the cuts sharp, fabrics sublime.

Crabb concurs that the season is experiencing a post-pandemic blow-up: “It has definitely been growing year-on-year. This summer, we’re selling a lot of architectural silhouettes, skirt suits and yellow. There has been a definite shift to larger, wide-brimmed hats. Our best-seller has been a super-large Audrey Hepburn style, featuring a huge bow (£925).” 

For race days with decorous dash, K-Midd and the York sisters live for a spot of Beulah, founded by Lady Natasha Rufus Isaacs and Lavinia Brennan in 2010. Get garden-party ready in the frilled, lilac Christina (£795), or modernise with the multi-rose or cobalt Ahana (£795). I want in. Alas, I am a Suzannah siren/Beulah bitch on a Ghost budget, and that on sale. 

Ghost apart, my bargain-seeking has also fallen upon Karen Millen’s occasion wear. The Tailored Jacquard Spot Pencil Dress (£229, for the gee-gees perhaps, or Mirrored Baroque Woven Midi Dress (£161.85) to hear Stephen Barlow conduct Katya at Grange Park? Reductions are frequently applied, while some of its hats can also prove winning. The trick is to wear this as if it’s not Karen Millen: nothing provincial nightclub about your footwear.

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