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Arts & Culture
With our partner, The Connecticut Historical Society, WNPR News presents unique and eclectic view of life in Connecticut throughout its history. The Connecticut Historical Society is a partner in Connecticut History Online (CHO) — a digital collection of over 18,000 digital primary sources, together with associated interpretive and educational material. The CHO partner and contributing organizations represent three major communities — libraries, museums, and historical societies — who preserve and make accessible historical collections within the state of Connecticut.

A Sunny Summer Staple

Prior to the 20th century, women’s fashions concealed them from the harsh sun, and the prying eyes of male onlookers.  However, with the popularization of the sun tan in the 1920s, women began to bask in the sun’s rays rather than hide from them under long sleeves, long skirts, and parasols.  The shift from porcelain-skinned beauty to sun-bathed beauty coincided with fashion’s shift from concealing to revealing the female form. 

It is not clear exactly when the sun dress came into being.  Was it with the acceptance of the suntan and sleeveless dresses in the 1920s?  Or later, during World War II fabric restrictions?  Regardless of how and when it got its start, the sun dress was a staple in the American woman’s summer wardrobe by the late 1950s.  There was nothing better for a summer picnic than a lightweight, breezy cotton dress.  The full skirt and fitted, sleeveless bodice provided modesty, style, and comfort.

The new sun dress also gave women an air of sophistication, since previous to the 1920s, exposed arms were usually a feature of formal eveningwear.  In addition, exposed arms occurred at an early date in young girls’ play clothes, so the new fashion could also suggest a youthful, playful appearance in adult wearers. 

Women quickly acclimated themselves to the comfort and freedom that the sun dress offered.  Whether paired with a jacket for a polished look, or worn alone as a simple summer frock, the sun dress has become the quintessential summer garment and remains popular today.

Historic examples of sun dresses and photographs of women wearing them form part of the collections of The Connecticut Historical Society, located at One Elizabeth Street, Hartford, CT 06105.  The Research Center and exhibitions at The Connecticut Historical Society are open Tuesday through Friday 1-5 and Saturdays from 9-5.

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