It’s that time of year when dresses, dresses and more dresses are hitting the shops. Even when compiling this article, we were a little overwhelmed with just how many excellent options there are out there. To make it easier, it’s worth remembering there are a couple of things that make for a really great summer dress and keeping them in mind while shopping is sure to help you find your perfect style.
Firstly, of course, is how easy it is to wear. As a general rule, the more comfortable you are the more confident you look, and feeling comfortable in the heat is even more essential to achieving that effortlessness we all strive for. We’re sure you’ll agree nothing beats throwing on a dress first thing in the morning and not worrying about your outfit for the rest of the day.
The second is versatility. It’s a huge bonus if a summer dress can work for more than one occasion, especially if it’s an investment piece. Plus, it’s the more sustainable option too. This year there are plenty of pub gardens, staycations and family reunions to attend, so the ability to multi-task is key.
When our tester was putting over 30 dresses through their paces in order to compile this list, these were the two main factors kept front of mind. Yes, it was extremely hard to cut it down to just 12, but after weeks of trialling them all through different weather and various outings, from picnics to coffee meetings, styled with everything from sandals and trainers to heels, these were the dresses that always came out on top.
You’ll mostly find a lot of easy, ageless designs that are perfect for wearing right now, as well as hopefully for many summers to come. 2021 is clearly the year of the smock dress (unsurprisingly as it’s basically the dress version of the tracksuit in comfort terms, with the added bonus of looking put-together) so there are a few of those in the mix. But we know puff sleeves aren’t everyone’s bag, and the same goes for ever-present florals, so we’ve tried to include a diverse range of styles with something to suit everyone.
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The best summer dresses for 2021 are:
- Best overall – M&S pure cotton lace trim waisted dress: £49.50, Marksandspencer.com
- Best investment –LK Bennett Phelia floral stretch cotton dress: £225, Lkbennett.com
- Best for throw-on style – Oasis detailed floral V-neck puff sleeve midi dress: £47.20, Oasis-stores.com
- Best for minimalists –Algine Calonie halter neck midi black dress: £89, Aligne.co
- Best for sustainable style – Omnes Elvira fitted midi dress in leafy floral print: £75, Omnes.com
- Best slip dress– Hush Jemma tea dress: £79, Hush-uk.com
- Best for the office– Next mix/primrose park, floral print shirt dress: £119, Next.co.uk
- Best plus size style – Nasty Gal plus size floral wrap dress: £33.60, Nastygal.com
- Best mini dress/best value – Nasty Gal gingham long sleeve mini dress: £24.50, Nastygal.com
- Best multitasker – Kitri Fonteyn blue gingham dress: £145, Kitristudio.com
- Best for the beach/best maxi – Free People feeling groovy maxi dress: £158, Freepeople.com
- Best knit dress – Warehouse multi stripe racer midi dress: £39.20, Warehousefashion.com
M&S pure cotton lace trim waisted dress
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: M&S just knows how to get it right. Its clothing always strikes a balance between trend-led and classic, made with quality materials that last. Along with the reasonable price points, it’s no wonder the brand is a firm favourite. This pretty as a picture, 100 per cent cotton dress is the epitome of easy to wear chic, as it’s super comfortable and appropriate for so many occasions. Our tester popped out to get coffee in it on a particularly sunny day, finding it was the perfect backdrop to some gold jewellery and a basket bag. There’s a removable slip, which is great for stopping the dreaded transparency of white dresses, especially when wearing in the city. But for beach days, you can ditch the slip and throw this light and airy style over your swimsuit and head for a cocktail or two come evening. It’s a style that looks great at any age, and one you’ll be pleased to have in your wardrobe for many summers to come.
LK Bennett Phelia floral stretch cotton dress
If you’re looking to invest in a timeless summer dress that feels light and joyful, look no further than LK Bennett’s new Phelia dress. Already popular among stylists and fashion editors since its recent launch, we couldn’t resist putting this to the test ourselves. The stretch in the cotton, as well as the ruched panel at the back of the dress makes it extremely comfortable. The shape is flattering on most body shapes, hugging (and skimming over) all the right places. It’s not ideal for bra-wearing given the wide neckline, so you may need to invest in a great strapless number if you need one, but for petite chests the fabric is plenty thick enough to go bra-free. LK Bennet have been producing great occasion wear since the nineties, and this perfect wedding-guest dress is no different. The added bonus here is that it looks just as good with trainers for the weekend.
Read more: Best strapless bras for every shape and size
Oasis detailed floral V-neck puff sleeve midi dress
Best for: Throw-on style
This 100 per cent cotton smock dress is a high street gem. The florals make it perfect for dressing up or down and the removable waist tie means you basically have two dresses in one. Without it, you get a throw-on voluminous style, excellent for looking chic in heatwaves and a great maternity option too. Add the belt and instantly cinch in your waist to transform it. We love the front bow detail too. As is common with this dress style, the sizing is quite generous but this makes it all the more – it’s the ultimate throw-on and feel good dress. Plus, the pretty print (reminiscent of high-end designer Doen), means you can’t help but smile when wearing it. We bet you’ll bring this out year after year, and for that price, it’s a no brainer.
Algine Calonie halter neck midi black dress
Best for: Minimalists
Hate florals? If you’re more of a minimalist at heart, head to Aligne for this understated halter dress. The recently launched womenswear brand uses sustainable fabrics and ethical processes to create its mature yet fresh designs. This floaty organic linen number is about to become your heatwave saviour this summer, and beyond. Simple yet feminine, and the neckline is adjustable to suit you which is a nice touch that makes finding the perfect fit a lot easier. There’s a white version that would be perfect for Mediterranean shores, but for now, while we’re staying closer to home the black is your best bet for everyday wear. Plus, there’s something stylish about wearing black in summer, especially when it’s this breezy.
Omnes Elvira fitted midi dress in leafy floral print
Best for: Sustainable style
Not many brands braved a launch in 2020, but Omnes – determined to make sustainable fashion accessible for all budgets – did so, and successfully too. Not that we should be surprised given the breath of fresh air that the brand’s offering brings. Despite its youth, the collection includes everything from loungewear to co-ords, chic separates and of course, plenty of dresses.
The bright designs are perfectly placed to add some personality to your summer wardrobe, especially if you’ve been living in tracksuits and craving something far from it. We’ll be honest, all the dresses are very good, but this 100 per cent BCI cotton style is a particularly great option, especially if you’re not a huge fan of this season’s ubiquitous puff sleeves. We also loved that you could wear this off the shoulder too for extra versatility. It’s a little more fitted with less stretch than the smock styles, so we’d suggest sizing up for a more comfortable fit. As well as being ethically sourced, there are nice eco-friendly touches like fully recycled and recyclable packaging and labels that can be planted in the garden– one thing’s for sure, this is a dress you can feel good about wearing.
Hush Jemma tea dress
Best: Slip dress
The return of Nineties style isn’t going anywhere soon. This slip dress from Hush has just the right amount of nod to the decade with its simple shape, but still manages to feel modern. We found it fit like a glove (true to size), with the super-soft crepe-like viscose material skimming over lumps and bumps rather than hugging in all the wrong places, as some slips do. The wider straps are flattering and the pink and green florals keep it satisfyingly feminine without it feeling too “floofy” (that’s a technical term). Throw on a light jacket with this and you’ve got a lovely early summer look. We like it with a leather biker and some chunky boots or this season’s favourite flatform sandals, but you could just as easily dress it up for a wedding with some strappy heels.
Read more: 10 best summer sandals for women
Label/Mix x Primrose Park floral print shirt dress
Best for: The office
A shirt dress is hard to beat in the versatility stakes. Especially this suits-everyone green version from Label/Mix and Primrose Park’s recent collaboration. If you’re unfamiliar with Label/Mix as a concept, it’s a specialist design team from high street stalwart Next that work with different emerging designers each season to create more affordable versions of the brand’s signature pieces. What’s not to love?
This style is particularly great if you’re set to be returning to the office this summer and have, like most of us, completely forgotten how to dress for it. It enables you to be smartly covered up, while also super comfortable thanks to the lovely light viscose fabric. You’re sure to stay relaxed in this even in the hottest of heatwaves – whether it’s brunch or the boardroom that’s calling.
Nasty Gal Plus size floral wrap dress
Best: Plus size style
Plus size fashion is still an area that needs, and deserves, a lot more attention across all fashion brands in order to make the industry fully inclusive. There are however a handful of online retailers doing a really good job of offering beautiful pieces in a wider range of sizes. Nasty Gal is one of them, and this handy wrap style (available in sizes 16-24) is a dress that will see you through many a summer event. From meeting friends at the weekends to all those re-arranged weddings, birthdays and reunions. It’s floaty but fully lined, and the wrap closure is fully adjustable making the sizing a little more flexible. We particularly loved the print on this one, proving that pink and green should definitely be seen.
Nasty Gal Gingham long sleeve mini dress
Best: Mini dress / best value
For under £25, this relaxed (read: very comfortable) mini dress is what we would call, a bargain. After reaching for this style again and again during the testing period, we can already tell this is going to be a style we wear repeatedly this season. It works well with knee-high or ankle boots for the perfect “dressed-up for dinner” outfit now but will look equally good with a slip-on or lace-up sandal in the height of summer. There’s always a worry with a cheap price tag that the fabric won’t hold up, but this viscose mix feels much more expensive than it is. The seersucker style gingham is not only on-trend (when isn’t gingham in for warm-weather) but gives a nice natural feel to the fabric to avoid any unwelcome hot flushes. The pretty tie neckline goes rather low so if you do need to wear a bra, make it a nice one that deserves to be seen (even if it is just a flash of it).
Kitri Fonteyn blue gingham dress
Kitri is hands down one of the best dress brands to come out of the last five years. Designer Haeni Kim just gets that women want to feel fancy, but be comfortable at the same time. In our experience the perfect multi-tasking dress is all about hitting that sweet spot between being too dressed up and too dressed down, making it suitable for all occasions, and this new gingham number is just right. It has all the ease and comfort (and cuteness) of a throw-on smock dress, but with a more flattering shape from the waist ruching. We also loved that you can choose to wear it off the shoulder or on if you prefer. This is that one dress you’ll always turn to when you have nothing to wear, so we think the slightly higher price point is worth the investment.
Free People feeling groovy maxi dress
Best for: The beach/best maxi
If you like your wardrobe on the more boho side, Free People should already be at the top of your go-to list for summer dresses. Its relaxed styles are always designed with comfort and style in mind, often in soft neutrals and rich earthy colour tones like this maxi dress. Again, there were so many contenders from this brand that could have made our best dress edit, but the beach-to-bar vibes of this Seventies style made it a shoo-in. Don’t worry, if tropical beaches aren’t on the horizon anytime soon it also comes with a slip making it much less see-through, and much more appropriate for floating around your local park. Just add a pair of lace-up sandals and oversized sunglasses and you’ll have that effortless summer look down to a tee.
Warehouse multi stripe racer midi dress
Best: Knit dress
Warehouse really is very good for dresses right now. Picking just one from its vast edit was tough to say the least. There’s plenty of great on-trend puff sleeve options, but this racer knitted dress caught our eye for being a little bit different. And looking a lot more expensive than its affordable price tag – let’s be real, it could have walked straight off a Missoni catwalk. It’s body-skimming but in all the right places, and uses cotton rather than wool knit which makes it much more warm-weather appropriate. That being said, you could definitely layer up and transition this into winter too, making it even better value. For now, though, it’s a dress to be worn on balmy evenings with a glass of something in hand.
The verdict: Summer dresses
This was a really tough call. If you’re a fan of florals and looking to invest in a dress that works for all occasions, we’d be inclined to suggest LK Bennett’s lovely Phelia dress. However, for the great value, quality and sheer comfort, as well as how darn pretty it is, M&S’s cotton and lace dress comes out on top all round for us.
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For more fashion inspiration, read our review of the best summer sandals
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