Simmering Over Summer Accessories

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 2, 2006

A foot in a flip-flop might as well be naked. And naked feet don't belong anywhere near an office.

The summer months bring steamy afternoons, lazy weekends and the urge to go thwackety-thwack, thwackety-thwack into the salt mines.

The flip-flops already are out in force. Their cheap rubber soles melt against the hot concrete and get all squishy, dirty and distorted. Last summer, members of Northwestern University's women's lacrosse team wore flip-flops to the White House and much ado was made about whether that was appropriate or a sign of a generational divide.

But the age of the feet doesn't matter. And there's no debating this. Flip-flops should be paired with surf shorts and swimsuits; they should be found on beaches and in public showers. Exceptions can be made for walking the dog, watering the lawn, taking out the trash and ensuring that a fresh pedicure makes it from salon to home without getting smudged.

Flip-flops are sloppy, cheap and generally unattractive. And that is part of their charm. (Ah, the pleasures of a slovenly weekend at the shore: $10 flip-flops, charred steak on the grill, icy Rolling Rock.) They represent the blissful informality of summer, the most grudging, reluctant response to the admonishment, "No shoes, no service."

Do not make flip-flops into something they are not.

Warm weather brings additional ghastly threats to the aesthetic landscape: leggings and sweat rags.

The fashion industry is a-twitter over the return of leggings, those footless tights that last made a significant stand in the 1980s. Designers have shown them layered under filmy skirts and short sundresses, and in theory, it is a charmingly bohemian style. The execution, however, is what gives one pause, as the look requires a keen understanding of proportion, reasonably slender legs and the ability to administer a significant amount of tough self-love.

Anyone who recalls the fashions of the '80s will remember that stretch leggings were embraced by a significant portion of the population. They were attracted by the comfort and -- thanks to a high percentage of spandex -- an easy fit. This democratization of a trend resulted in the unpleasant sight of chunky legs tightly swaddled in spandex. Telling a woman of a certain girth not to wear leggings is a delicate proposition because, in so doing, one has to wade into issues of self-esteem, body image and discrimination. One would be committing the politically incorrect sin of pulling certain people aside and saying, "You shouldn't. You can't. Don't." But there it is. The truth stings.

Can there be such a thing as too much self-confidence? One must consider that question regularly. So often women embrace a trend that is by all measures unflattering on them -- low-rise trousers, shrugs, miniskirts -- and yet they still strut proudly along the street, head held high, shoulders back. Is it petty and mean for a dear friend to pull such a woman aside and explain that today, at this moment, she is a blight on the scenery? Is that the duty of a true, honest pal? The renaissance of leggings may force more than a few friends to ponder that very dilemma.

The sweat rag should engender no such ambivalence. This grotesque accouterment is most often spotted in the hands -- or on the head -- of young men. In a typical scenario, the gentleman is dressed in baggy shorts and a basketball jersey so oversized that it could be mistaken for a tank dress. Do not make the mistake of assuming that this fellow has just engaged in some sort of athletic activity and is thus sweating profusely because he is still cooling down. (A man who has just run a 10K in the summer deserves a towel, a liter of water and a round of applause.) More often than not, the man with the sweat rag hasn't engaged in anything more strenuous than supersizing his fries.

He is simply hot. But he views himself as exceptionally cool. And so in lieu of a handkerchief or a Kleenex, he is carrying a hand towel. He may well have the towel spread out over his head like a canopy. While one can easily appreciate the danger and discomfort of the sun beating down on one's head, especially if it is shaved clean, a nice baseball cap, bandanna or skully is a perfectly reasonable option.

Carrying around an old dirty towel -- and they always seem to be dingy -- makes a man look as though he plans on performing fairly intimate grooming activities in public. Or he looks like a holdover from the 20th-century dance-club scene when men started tooting on a whistle and twirling a towel -- or their recently removed shirt -- at the first hint of a Louie Vega remix.

There is something desperately macho about these men who accessorize themselves from Bed, Bath & Beyond. The subtext of the sweat rag seems to be that vigorous perspiring is a sign of manliness. Thus a fellow who carries thick, absorbent terry cloth to mop up his sweat must be drowning in testosterone. But he's not much to look at.

A damp brow in the summer's heat is not unseemly; it's natural. And when the weather settles into sultry and sticky, move slowly, keep to the shade and use a hankie.

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