Check out the dresses at any outdoor store, and you start to see patterns: a lot of halter tops, low backs, and spaghetti straps straight from the ’90s. In other words, dresses that aren’t designed to be easily worn braless. But as we know, outdoor bodies run the gamut of shapes, sizes, and abilities, so I tested active dresses with a bit more coverage on top. Whether you wear a bra for comfort, modesty, or your own reasons—or even if you don’t!—here are some of the best dresses of the season.
Helly Hansen Siren Dress ($75, sizes XS to XL)
I spent much of my adolescence being less cool than Norwegian girls, so I have a strong affinity for Scandinavian clothing brands that make me feel like the Norwegian Cool Girl I never got to be. This dress makes me feel like I’m sailing a yacht in a tropical place with a golden retriever at my side and my braids blowing in the salt wind. The fabric is ultrasilky and light as air yet manages to stay opaque even when it gets wet, which is some sort of sorcery. The drop waist is adjustable and hits at the hips, giving your belly plenty of space, and the back is interesting without revealing too much skin. There’s a big kangaroo pocket in the front of the skirt. If your vibe is less yacht and more grown-up scout camp, this Helly Hansen dress uses similar lightweight material in a sleeveless design.
Nuu-Muu ($78 to $88, sizes 00 to 22)
I have two things to say about the Nuu-Muu. First, here’s what it is: a stretchy tank sheath that doesn’t wrinkle or show sweat. It feels like it’s made from expensive swimsuit fabric. Think about the things you like to do, and you could probably wear a Nuu-Muu to do them.
Here’s the second thing I have to say about the Nuu-Muu dress: it made me realize how rare and refreshing it is to find a garment that is actually designed to make women feel good, period, that’s it, that’s the whole damn goal.
There are models on the website with gray hair and kids in tow and different body shapes, biking and lifting weights and going to the farmer’s market, and they all look really beautiful and happy. The dress is cut to fit well and not get in your way while you’re doing stuff, and the fabric patterns aren’t trying to be sexy or sophisticated so much as to just make you smile, and even the sizes have cute names like (M)arvelous and (XL)ent, which is cheesy but also great, like, look, people can have hang-ups about their size, and this woman-owned company isn’t afraid to be dorky if it helps someone feel good about what fits them.
I tested the scoop-neck version, which has two flat pockets on the back. The size large is a little loose on me in a pleasant way and hits at my mid-upper thigh. (I’m 5'8" and wear a size 12.) The side slits look nice and give you a full range of motion, especially if you’re wearing spandex shorts underneath. I did find that the fabric can be a little clammy on humid days, so when it’s really hot out, I’d recommend wearing it specifically as activewear—when you’re going to embrace sweating and the material can shine—rather than just for hanging out. For now, my favorite time to wear the Nuu-Muu is tubing down the Wolf River in northern Wisconsin, because I love river tubing, and this is a garment for doing what you love.
Smartwool Merino 150 Dress ($90, sizes XS to XL)
Did you know that you can wear whatever you want? I grew up taking magazine quizzes about the right clothing for different body types and then spent my teens and twenties wearing fit-and-flare dresses. After all, that’s what you’re supposed to do with curves: cinch your waist, cover your thighs. Then, last year, my stylish friend gave me a smock minidress, which was super comfy and made me feel like a boss, and it blew my mind. I say that because I might not have picked up Smartwool’s Merino 150 dress a year ago, and I would have been missing out.
This dress is simple. It is a long, loose shirt-thing made from knit merino, which has a very nice drape and holds up well over time, if my decade-old Smartwool merino shirts (which, trust me, I have not washed according to the guidelines) are any indicator. It is almost obscenely comfortable and has a cute scalloped hem and a triangle cutout above the shoulder blades. You can wear it on hot days with natural deodorant (aka deodorant that hardly works), and it still won’t smell, because wool is magic. One downside: the material easily picks up dog hair, so don’t get the black version if you plan to pet white dogs. Or get the black anyway and cuddle with your seafaring golden retriever, because guess what? You can wear whatever you want.