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On Beach Clothes: A Sandy, Sticky Summertime Staple

Not swimwear — the stuff you wear on top.
The Beatles on a beach in Miami, Fla., surrounded by female fans, circa February 1964. Photo: Daily Express/Archive Photos/Getty Images

The Beatles on a beach in Miami, Fla., surrounded by female fans, circa February 1964. Photo: Daily Express/Archive Photos/Getty Images

"Home," as we understand it, means many things to many people. Hallmark cards (and more recently, Instagram poets) established this years ago. It's, I don't know, catching a whiff of your mom's perfume while slinking around a department store you drifted into, just for fun, while running errands. Or, it's hearing your dad's favorite, eight-minute-long driving song come on at a restaurant. It's where I sit at a four-person dinner table, and what central air conditioning smells like when it just kicks on. "Home," the Hallmark verison, is hokey, but it's delicate and pleasant, like a tended garden in the middle of Manhattan, and I love to be reminded of that place and those people it still houses.

In the summertime, especially on weekends, I'm reminded of "home" all the time. I grew up three blocks from the beach and still, few things are as closely tied to "home" as that. Even in New York City, close to 1,000 miles from the beach I basically haunted ghoulishly, sunny weekends are filled with towel-hugging people on their ways to or from whatever waterfront is the closest ferry-ride away.

Beach clothes, chosen for the purpose of being tossed aside and put on again at the end of the day, make me particularly happy. Beach clothes are, by nature, non-precious: They can get sand on them and in them (where it will stay for weeks) and can absorb whatever's left of a still-wet swimsuit. They can endure ice cream spillage, sandcastle-sized buckets of sweat and, of course, many a layer of sunscreen. (That last one, most importantly.)

A few years ago, I went to a screening for "Very Good Girls," that indie movie where adults Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen play teenagers and parts of which were filmed on Coney Island in what looked like the middle of July. I don't remember much from the film besides what Fanning and Olsen's characters wore in the opening scene, which has inexplicably taken up valuable space in my memory hard drive for the last four years. Both Fanning and Olsen wear some variation of jean shorts — a classic — with either a well-worn cotton tank or a baggy, vintage-looking tee. Both have their hair up in either a messy ponytail or bun, perhaps messy as such from their bike ride to or from their destination or their hours spent letting humidity do its duty.

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I found this attention to detail striking and oddly emotional. If you look at a picture of me in my own teenage years taken sometime between Memorial Day and Labor Day, I will almost certainly be clothed in a similar, more plainly Midwestern modification of the same outfit. What "Very Good Girls" featured was no glamorization of the procedural beach-going experience: just shorts you don't mind riding a bike in and a top you don't mind getting damp.

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And yet, there is still something so intentional about beach clothes contradictory to their otherwise "carefree" nature. Part of the reason I have such a penchant for them, maybe, is because of this. I'm nothing if not precise and am also accordingly a master at formally choosing attire based on an activity that is rooted in informality. ("Fake it 'til you make it," they say.) Maybe the act of picking beach clothes makes me feel "home" in myself.

Writing this, I wonder how others take comfort in the wardrobes of other summery outings as I do for that of the beach. Someone, of course, gets just as sentimental seeing people in swingy tennis skorts, about to play doubles early on a Saturday when the rest of the city is still asleep. And surely, there are others who view beach clothes through the same nostalgia-tinged lens as I and who may even associate Rainbow flip-flops and red bandanas with the same, or at least similar, experiences as I. 

It goes something like this: Setting out on our bikes, we arrive stocked with supplies and prepared for the day ahead. We flash our beach passes at lifeguards we don't know but used to, years ago, when we were still making the memories on which we now look back.

Then, tucking into the sand, we peel off the layers of clothes we so intentionally, yet lazily, picked out. And that's when I really come "home."

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