Terry cloth: is it high fashion or am I just wearing a towel?

TERRY CLOTH is a time-honored fabric used for beach cover-ups and tea towels. But this summer, luxury brands from Prada to Alaïa are using the textured material for shoes, dresses and more. Does it have a place in the fashion world? Here, a Terry preacher and a critic's voice disappear.

Yes, it is comfortable and chic and originates from France
Who doesn't love the feeling of getting out of a steaming hot shower and wrapping yourself in a plush towel? Now, imagine that you could spend all day immersed in cloudy soft comfort. If your imagination isn't up to it, don't worry: you can easily make it happen with this stylish terrycloth dress for summer.

The designer's vision of terrycloth - a fabric that, like many fashion items, was conceived in France in the mid-1800s - has evolved this season from pool cover-ups and loungewear to jumpsuits and vintage-inspired suits. The fabric trotted through the spring shows of brands like Jacquemus and Marine Serre; Prada grabbed it to make plush sandals; Bottega Veneta sold textured clutches; and Paris-based label Alaïa elegantly made terrycloth into dresses. One such Alaïa design - the hooded, black, thigh-high slit - led me to become a Terry Evangelist. I used to find terrycloth disgustingly casual and even tacky, thanks to its association with Y2K sportswear and doll dresses (though some might see those as selling points for 2023). For now I see it as a triumph of relaxed, lively summer style.

"It's resurfacing in an elevated way," says New York designer Suzie Kondi, who wore a red terry T-shirt dress in our interview. She touts the fabric's day-to-night versatility, noting that she can confidently go almost anywhere with her designs, and that a recent client wore her terry top and harem pants to a ballet. New York designer Victor Glemaud relays that his clients wear his striped terry dresses (see "Up to Fluff") on the tennis court or with kitten heels. "It's breathable, it's easy, but it still makes a statement and gives you a great fit," Mr. Glemaud said of the fabric. "That's what I love about it."

TERRY TOWN fashion blogger Maria Barteczko wears a puff sleeve terry top in Düsseldorf, Germany in 2021.

Danielle Monti-Morren, 53, is equally obsessed. The Los Angeles commercial and interior designer, whose mother loved terrycloth in the '70s, spent her early years wearing absorbent dresses from Juicy Couture. These days, she often rotates through a more polished white blazer with a chunky gold necklace and jeans or linen pants for everything from dinner parties to client meetings. The terry bag is another mainstay; she's currently pursuing the fluffy Fendi Baguette.

Lauren Nottes, 31, relies on terry suits consisting of sweatshirts and pants or shorts. The New York mother of two loves the "ease" of running around with her kids from morning to night. During the day, she uses sneakers to ground the terrycloth; for evenings out, she upgrades to heels or formal sandals.

I've also found Terry to be a valuable ally in countless situations. I wear my dresses to fashion shows, cocktail parties, on planes, at the beach and for MRIs. How many pieces do you have in your closet that can do it all?

--Catherine K. Zarella

Terry cloth is great. I use towels all the time. To dry my dishes and clean up spills after a shower. But as someone who endured the terry fashion craze of the 2000s, I prefer to keep the fabric in the kitchen and out of the closet.

I'll admit, there's something to be said for brightly colored terrycloth shorts and swimsuit cover-ups in certain sunny situations, especially when you desperately need to wipe your child's ice cream-coated face at the beach. But now, for some reason, designers have decided to make everything from bras to cocktail dresses out of this blocky fabric, raising the question: Have we taken terry too far?

Kate Davidson Hudson, head of branding for luxury e-commerce site Luisaviaroma, says terrycloth can be fun when cut and draped by the inspired artisans of high-end fashion brands. But terry cloth styles popular in the Y2K era, such as doll dresses and jumpsuits, should be left in the past. "Terry is a tricky fabric," she says, noting that the fabric can look bulky and create awkward silhouettes. In fact, think of your fluffy terry bathrobe. Is it comfortable? Absolutely. Flattering? Not so much.

Terry can be heavy (think bath towels), making it an odd clothing choice for a summer heat wave. Emily Smith, creative director of New York womenswear brand Lafayette 148, is working on a capsule collection of terrycloth for next summer, but it's limited to casual loose-fitting pieces, such as shorts and poolside appropriate cover-ups. When it comes to more formal styles, she's highly skeptical of the fabric's viability. "Even if I saw that happening, I wasn't going to make a fitted dress out of terry cloth," she says. "For that, you'd have to be a bamboo pole."

For many, terry will harken back to the days of those skinny Juicy Couture It girls. "Y2K is slowly informing the designer collections for better or worse," Ms. Davidson-Hudson said, referring to Generation Z's nostalgia for the early days. Her advice: embrace circa-2000 style, no matter how dubious it may be, in other, more appealing ways. "If you want to fit in with fashion and cultural trends and still feel relevant, it's probably safer to wear a fisherman's hat or quirky sandals."

Ultimately, my resistance to Terry boils down to the simple fact that, in whatever form it takes, it's basically a towel. And the primary function of a towel is to absorb. On a recent weekend trip, I - a born shrew - foolishly wore a snazzy ivory terry t-shirt to lunch. I promptly dunked it in balsamic vinegar. Over the rest of the meal, my ivory t-shirt sparked another regrettable Y2K trend: spray-painted patterned clothing.

--Rebecca Malinsky

UP TO FLUFF / Six summer terry sanitary ware, equally luxurious and plush

Clockwise from left: pants, $195, top, $195, SuzieKondi.com; shirt, $148, Kule.com; Victor Glemaud dress, $495, SaksFifthAvenue.com; shorts, $60, top, $90, LaVesteLaVeste .com

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