Streetscape: Irwin Shaw’s “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses”

September 14, 2008

Irwin Shaw’s “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses” offers a pessimistic if not unresolved look at gender relations and the status-quo-is-the-best-we’ll-get social construct. In it, the two characters—a married couple walking along a New York city street—are shown to have divergent reactions toward the sources and symptoms of extramarital affairs.

“Summer Dresses” is a short story at its best, showing action and narrative progress mostly by dialogue, taking full use of the nuances of everyday conversation, a perfect medium for The New Yorker of the 1930s. Almost all of the text is in quotation marks, and few descriptive that divide the sections of dialogue serve to set the place… a street corner, a table in a bar, a waiter.

As the story progresses, we see that the two are isolated. She wants to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art and skate and see a French film and “have a nice Sunday.” He makes no objection, but for other reasons.

“Let’s not see anybody all day,” she said. “Let’s just hang around with each other. You and me. We’re always up to our neck in people, drinking their Scotch or drinking our Scotch; we only see each other in bed. I want to go out with my husband all day long. I want him to talk only to me and listen only to me.”
“What’s to stop us?” Michael asked.

Stopping Michael is his infatuation with other women, exploring the “other” or unfamiliar. Therefore, he stares, and this drives Frances crazy.

“—say, are you listening to me?”
“Sure,” he said. He took his eyes off the hatless girl with the dark hair, cut dancer-style like a helmet, who was walking past him.
“That’s the program for the day,” Frances said flatly. “Or maybe you’d just rather walk up and down Fifth Avenue.”
“No,” Michael said. “Not at all.”
“You always look at other women,” Frances said. “Everywhere. Every damned place we go.”

Michael’s justification of this trait, and his inadequate attempt to console his wife, is what produces the story’s conflict. To him, admiring other women is natural, a release, a simple side-effect of his surroundings. In Michael’s words, “I casually inspect the universe.” And his immediate universe, New York City, is full of them. Location is a factor that even he admits.

He moved to the city from Ohio, and now has access to “battalions of women” who create a land where “everything is concentrated from all over the world into seven blocks—the best furs, the best clothes, and the handsomest women, out to spend money and feeling good about it.” Fifth Avenue comes to represent the nexus of visual pleasure for him.

Frances is confused about how to respond to Michael’s actions toward other women, but ultimately concedes: “You ought to see the look in your eye,” Frances said, “ as you casually inspect the universe on Fifth Avenue” … “All right, I don’t know why I started this. Let’s drop it. Let’s have a good time.” Perhaps she senses that this type of behavior will pass, like the symptoms of an adolescent mind. We see that this will tragically not be the case, however: “I’m a happily married man.” … “Example for the whole twentieth century…”

It’s obvious even to Michael that his staring habit is hurtful to his wife. But he doesn’t yield; she does. Possible future adultery (more serious than just looking) is passed off as out of his control.

“Aren’t you?” Frances asked harshly. “Come on, tell me. Talk. Aren’t you?”
“Maybe,” Michael said. He moved his chair back again. “How the hell do I know?”
“You know,” Frances persisted. “Don’t you know?”
“Yes,” Michael said after a while. “I know.”

Frances seems to be able to accept this conclusion, as long as Michael doesn’t go too far. Both of them are guilty of participating in the façade, and alcohol becomes a way for both of them to swallow their pride:

“At least do me one favor,” she said.
“Stop talking about how pretty this woman is or that one. Nice eyes, nice breasts, a pretty figure, good voice.” She mimicked his voice. “Keep it to yourself. I’m not interested.”
Michael waved to the waiter. “I’ll keep it to myself,” he said.
Frances flicked the corners of her eyes. “Another brandy,” she told the waiter.
“Two,” Michael said.

Today, Fifth Avenue, which cuts up and down the heart of Manhattan, is considered to be a shopping paradise, a popular retail center. It traverses Central Park, passes the Metropolitan Museum of Art as well as the Guggenheim Museum, and is the site of many parades.

Some images of New York’s Fifth Avenue during the time of Irwin Shaw:

New York’s Fifth Avenue and 42nd street, showing an crowd gathering in celebration of Armistice Day, November 11, 1937. Photo courtesy of New York Public Library’s Digital Collection; Wurts Brothers, photorapher; “Streetscape and Townscape of Metropolitan New York City, 1860-1942.”

New York’s Fifth Avenue and 44th street, May 13, 1938. By the clock, it appears to be about 1:30 PM. Photo courtesy of New York Public Library’s Digital Collections; Berenice Abbott, photographer; “Changing New York: Photographs by Berenice Abbott.”
1. Shaw, Irwin. “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses.” Short Stories from the New Yorker. New York: Simon and Shuster; 1967. 3-8.