When assembling an excellent ensemble, you're inevitably faced with all kinds of issues vying for your attention. Obviously the loudest and most important questions must be addressed first: is it appropriate, fashionable, and flattering? But that means other qualities¬--like how comfortable an item is¬--rarely make it to the top of that list. Finding a piece that satisfies our top outfit concerns and is a delight to wear is like the clothing equivalent of striking gold: rare but amazing when it happens. Luckily, there is a wardrobe staple that not only meets the above criteria, but is also the essence of summery chic: the maxi dress. Whether it's worn in a casual way for day or dressed up for the evening, these must-have frocks not only come in an array of fits and fabrics, they also can be customized to work for a range of tastes. Adaptable and accommodating, it's no wonder why tastemakers ranging from Alexa Chung to Rachel Zoe adore the maxi dress!
Though many people associate the maxi's floor-grazing hemline with formal occasions, its relaxed silhouette makes it an excellent option for leisurely daytime outings. Just take a page from Alexa Chung and Jessica Hart's stylebooks if you need some inspiration, as they have mastered the effortless, throw-on-and-go look. The formula is simple: pick the right fabric (often cotton, or other daytime-appropriate materials), correct shoes (flats), and personality-showing details (like a bowler hat and boots or a quirky ribbon belt). For example, while out and about in Soho last month, Hart gave her tie-dyed Gypsy 05 All Over Alligator Maxi Dress ($143) some grunge attitude by pairing it with Dr. Marten's 1460 8 Eye Boots ($115) and a brimmed hat. Chung was also spotted in New York around the same time wearing an equally personalized interpretation of the maxi. The English beauty opted for a simple black vintage dress, which she cinched in at the waist with a polka dot ribbon and accessorized with a pair of KG by Kurt Geiger Lemur Sandals ($61, only available in UK stores). She finished her ensemble with a petite across-body bag¬--Chanel, naturally¬--which works perfectly with her unfussy outfit.
Need some alternatives for either of their looks? To achieve an approximation of Hart's model-off-duty flair, check out Hurley's Fox YC Maxi Dress ($69) and Goorin Brothers' Bad Boy Fedora ($70). Or you can capture Chung's laidback style: just pick up a simple maxi dress like Topshop's Strappy Jersey Dress ($36) and pair it with a small across-body purse and basic sandals. We think Tory Burch's Embossed Card Fold Wallet ($250) and Nine West's Punchy Sandals ($79) would totally work, but the details are up to you!
Another amazing aspect of the maxi dress is the way it can easily be worn around the clock, as Daisy Lowe and Ashley Olsen prove. Both ladies opted for floral prints and seasonless fabrics, two factors that make their dresses suitable for a number of occasions. To give you a sense of the range this type of frock offers, first consider the outfit Daisy Lowe wore to a lunch at Zuma in London earlier this summer. Dressed in head-to-toe Topshop¬--including Floral Ruffle Maxi Dress ($135, 866.853.8559), Double Buckle Waist Belt ($60, 866. 853.8559), and Saffron Strappy Sandals ($145)¬--Lowe looks perfectly sweet and chic. Meanwhile in New York, Ashley Olsen picked a diaphanous floral maxi (vintage!) for the American Image Awards. The dress' dark color scheme and semi-sheer fabric, plus smartly chosen accessories¬--a metallic clutch (also vintage) and sexy Azzedine Alaia heels¬--are perfect for an evening event.
If you're craving something like Olsen's selection, make sure you check out Oasis' Double Layer Maxi Dress ($108)¬--a perfect choice for transitioning seasons. You can also find great alternatives to Olsen's frock by checking out your favorite vintage stores (like The Way We Wore and What Comes Around Goes Around) and websites (like Resurrection.com or ebay). For a lavish daytime alternative √† la Lowe, we suggest you try Boutique to You's Floral Maxi ($60), and pick up some neutral accessories like wide Modcloth's Cobblestone Belt ($20) and Whitney & Davis' Minaudiere Clutch ($130) to complete your pretty look.
Of course, this silhouette also works perfectly for fancier affairs: simply remember to style your maxi dress for maximum glamour (that means accessories!). Rachel Zoe and Sarah Jessica Parker showed us how it's done recently; they picked two very different, decidedly gorgeous gowns, but each was personalized with chic accents. Regarding the former, Zoe was spotted two months ago at the Whitney Art Party presented by BCBGMAXAZRIA in a beautiful red vintage Stavropoulos dress paired with layered necklaces and bracelets from her collection with QVC. We love the way the Bravo star gave her look an extra kick of Old Hollywood pizzazz by adding an amazing white feather jacket (vintage, of course)¬--a fabulous choice, for sure. As for the latter, SJP opted for a long sleeve, cobalt blue Haltson Heritage dress for the London after party for Sex and the City 2. Parker styled her dress with satin shoes and subtle gold accents (her cuff and bag), which bring a sense of luxury to her captivating ensemble.
Those of you who are interested in emulating either the RZ or SJP look are in luck because we found some amazing alternatives for your shopping pleasure. Zoe aficionados can create their own classically chic ensembles by picking up a stunning gown in a formal fabric; Austique's Silk Maxi Dress ($540) is a truly beautiful design and it mimics Zoe's burst of color. Next, step up the glitz with a few great jewelry pieces, like Lisa Stewart's Tassel Necklace ($72) and Rachel Zoe's Vintage Style Spotlight Necklace ($165), and then finish off your gown with a chic layer like Forzieri's White Mongolian Fur Vest ($398). As for the Parker devotees out there, we're sorry to say that her exact Halston Heritage dress is no longer available, but they do have plenty of other chic options to choose from! We're fans of the brand's Satin Jersey Gown ($495) because it is the perfect choice for cocktail hour and is available in an enticing, rich purple hue. Add some golden accessories¬--like Chico's Fahima Bracelet ($36) and Inge Christopher's Armadillo Clutch¬--and you'll have created an elegant look that's also completely cool!¬--Jessica Baker
Photos of Daisy Lowe and Alexa Chung, courtesy of PCN; Photos of Ashley Olsen and Jessica Hart, courtesy of Splash; Photo of Sarah Jessica Parker, courtesy of WENN