Applied Fashion: Rebecca Willis takes on summer dressing. When the temperature rises in the city it's time to keep an eye on your oktas

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Summer 2010

Is there any sight more comical than a punk in a heat wave? The dark, studded uniform looks absurd, like tinsel in June. It reminds me of a pale-skinned woman I worked with for many years at Vogue who didn’t “do” summer, and wore 50-denier black tights all year round. But as the sun inches north of the Equator, I start to wonder if the joke is on me. Because in one part of my brain—let’s call it the wardrobe department—the sunlight sets alarm bells ringing.

Except in matters sartorial, I adore summer and spend all winter longing for it to return. I even have a SAD lamp. But I love my winter clothes. They are a sort of body armour: like long hair, you can hide behind them. Summer clothes are more revealing, both actually and psychologically. They are more testing of your self-confidence, because you show the world more of yourself. 

But it’s an ambiguous revelation—there’s been an issue about how much flesh to show since Adam and Eve discovered the fig leaf. There’s no problem over what you wear to weed the garden, or do the washing-up, or go to the beach. But for those of us who live in cities—working in offices, meeting friends for lunch—there is still a very live issue about how to “do” summer. Who has not marched confidently out of the house in an outfit that looked fine in front of the mirror, only to feel horribly naked by the time they reach the bus stop?

I know that fashion diktats are supposed to be a thing of the past. But it’s good to have a few rules of thumb, not least because otherwise getting dressed in summer can, paradoxically, take longer than it does in winter. My personal policy for summer derives from the system of oktas, or eighths, that meteorologists invented to describe cloud cover (I knew geography O-level would be useful one day).

If you count the human torso as three sections, the arms and legs as four sections, and the face as one, it makes eight. So, full burqa-with-veil is eight oktas of cover, while a topless bikini is—almost—zero. Each woman will have to work out her own okta comfort-level, but my (urban) one is about five oktas of cover—ie, three uncovered. So having bare arms means mostly covering up your legs; short sleeves mean a bit more leg can be visible; a short skirt means arms covered to the wrist. It’s like putting a too-small tablecloth on a table: you can cover the legs at one end, the legs at the other, or the middle bit, but the total amount of coverage remains the same.

The beauty of this system, though I say it myself, is that it correlates with the actual weather: the more cloud cover there is in the sky, the more cover you are likely to want on your person. People tend towards it instinctively: witness the St Tropez/Ibiza look, often seen at airports, where a miniskirt and little top are underpinned by cowboy boots. Having test-driven this look myself, I can vouch that the boots really do stop that help-I-forgot-to-get-dressed feeling. Doubtless that’s why, in a season when the fashion industry is positing (I think with a straight face) the wearing of leather hot-pants, we’re told that summer boots are going to be big.

Also, the return of leggings in the last few years is a godsend for an urban summer, not least because—unless you work in New York—they mean you can make a bonfire of any flesh-coloured tights you still own. Leggings can transform a little shift dress or a beach kaftan—by Allegra Hicks, preferably—into decent work-wear (except maybe in the City, where women wear a kind of uniform and seasons are irrelevant because of the air-conditioning). For this service to womankind I prophesy that, particularly in more northern climes, leggings are here to stay this time. 

Once you have got the measure of self-revelation, it can be very liberating: cheap summer clothes look better than their winter counterparts, and encourage experimentation. Colours that would kill a pale, drawn January complexion look good with a sunny, relaxed face (though I admit I don’t stray far from the first bit of the Farrow & Ball chart). Diaphanous tops with a vest underneath offer cover without looking heavy, as do cropped trousers. And it is delicious to feel warm sun on exposed skin; skin that, you imagine, is laying down stores of Vitamin D to get you, and your SAD lamp, through the winter to come.

Rebecca Willis is an associate editor of Intelligent Life and former travel editor of Vogue

Illustration Sandra Suy