The Girls in Their Gigantic Summer Dresses

l aleksander The Girls in Their Gigantic Summer DressesWalking around the city this summer, one must take care not to trip on the dragging hems of the maxi: the 1970s-inspired, empire-waisted frock of lightweight fabric flowing down into the floor, promising to hide the tummy and elongate the figure (though not always succeeding).

“Right now I am wearing it to just walk around the city, but tomorrow I’ll wear another one like it to a daytime wedding shower,” said Stephanie Cammarata, 26, the owner of a Williamsburg boutique called Archangela, who was strolling down Bedford Avenue recently, holding up the corner of her $165 belted royal blue maxi by Candela NYC. She said she owns “tons” of such dresses.

New York women praised the style’s practicality. “They’re great because you don’t have to shave your legs,” said Nikky Smith, 25, a clerk at the store Americord, who owns a vintage copper lamé maxi that she wears year round. And Sat Chan Fox, 35, a waitress at the Stone Rose in the Time Warner Center, is pleased that her $30 simple gray tiered version from H&M hides her work-induced spider veins.

The maxi used to be the sort of the thing one bought for $10 at the corner flea market and wore to the beach over a swimsuit and with a wide-brimmed hat. But designers have upped the ante. Alexander McQueen and Roberto Cavalli sent expensive maxis down the runway for their spring 2008 collections; Patricia Field put tie-dye hippie ones on the ladies of the Sex and the City movie; and in this week’s issue of Us Weekly, readers can vote on whether actress Kate Hudson or Jimmy Choo designer Tamara Mellon wore their identical Balmain’s violet-feather-printed “boho gowns” better.

Sitting on a bench in Union Square on a balmy Saturday, The Observer clocked roughly 15 maxi dresses in a period of 10 minutes—that’s one and a half maxis per minute.

Yikes!

There are the Diane von Furstenberg $345 maxi dresses with intricate floral and geometric prints favored by Gwen Stefani and Molly Sims; the $240 solid cotton jersey tube-top Nui maxis, which Jessica Simpson reportedly purchased in 12 different colors; and an overwhelming variety of others, including embroidered ones by Anthropologie ($288), Grecian drape maxis by Ali Ro ($322), and the more subtle white linen tiered maxis by DKNY ($425).

The trend has now reached its apogee: that unfortunate point when high-end maxi designs trickle down into the trenches of Old Navy and H&M, reinterpreted in cheap cotton and polyester fabrics and unskilled tailoring for under $35.

Maybe it’s all the fault of stylist Rachel Zoe, who made over an entire generation of Hollywood starlets, taking them out of their lady-parts-flashing minis and putting them in billowing dresses, accessorized with chunky bracelets around their dangling wrists, flat sandals, and tall cups of Starbucks skim lattes.

The city of London also might deserve some of the blame. Bloomingdale’s VP of women’s wear Stephanie Solomon said that she first spotted the trend last year on the streets of England’s capital before deciding to buy up this year’s crop of high-end maxis and designing an entire elaborate window display around them. Weren’t we just being urged to bare our legs? “I think the issue of hemlines is rather an anachronism for our young customers,” said Ms. Solomon. “Hemlines are something an older generation would think about; younger customers do not.” She said she’d spotted many maxis in formal mode at the recent CFDA Awards. “With a major choker and an evening bag, you’ve got another statement altogether.”

Still, when touting the look, maxi dresses’ fans tend to fling about adjectives like “forgiving,” “comfortable” and “breezy.”

“Even though it’s long, it really shows off the body,” said Sari Sloane, head buyer for Intermix, where floral maxis from Stella McCartney and DVF have been top sellers. “They’re really flattering and easy for a lot of different women to wear.”

Kathleen Adams Clements, a 27-year-old freelance writer, recently purchased a bamboo cotton maxi with coral print ($112) at the Imrie boutique in Westhampton. “You can move like a real summer girl and not have to worry about flashing someone,” she said. “With everyone laying their emotions and love lives out for everyone to see and having been flashed by a couple of less-than-discreet celebrities, there is an appeal to wondering what’s underneath.

“It reminds me of something you’d see in A Room With a View,” she mused. “It’s the newer version of what those girls wore while hopping around fields and stuff.”

Perhaps the dress is a public revolt: an antidote to painted-on shiny leggings; to Lindsay Lohan flashing us her Spanx at the MTV Movie Awards; to Gwyneth Paltrow’s overeager efforts to be the fuckable mom in her minidresses and stiletto heels. But let’s not forget that “comfortable” and “forgiving” are just a few inches of fabric away from shapeless, draping curtains—a garment that obliterates a woman’s attributes while promising to shelter her imperfections. Indeed, if a woman happens to have maxi-hips to match her maxi dress, she risks looking like a paisley-printed tent.

“If you have incredibly long legs, they can make you look like a goddess,” said Martina Szarek, 22, a recent graduate of Barnard, who is 5-foot-3. “Otherwise, you’ll look like a Mormon or a puff pastry.”

ialeksander@observer.com