The Girls in Their Summer Dresses

by Irwin Shaw

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Irwin Shaw's 1939 story is a brief examination of a man, Michael Loomis, who is nearing middle age, and his wife, Frances, and their ongoing struggle with the tension and instability created by his roving eye.

The couple are Manhattanites, and as they stroll down Fifth Avenue toward Greenwich Village, Frances notes that Michael is once again looking at women they pass. She confronts him about it, and he readily admits that it is one of the things he has always liked about living in Manhattan: the vast number of women upon whom he can cast his appraising eyes. He tells Frances, "One of the things I like best about New York is the battalions of women."

Frances has clearly noted this behavior for a decent percentage of their relationship. She even has a formula for how long Michael’s eyes will stray:

"If she's not pretty you turn away fairly quickly. If she's halfway pretty you watch her for about seven steps. . . ."

"My Lord, Frances!"

"If she's pretty you practically break your neck . . ."

Michael’s behavior is obvious and pervasive. It is noticed by Frances and certainly by the women he admires, evidenced by one woman walking differently with Michael's eyes on her. When Frances tells Michael that his behavior is immature, he replies to her:

Guess again. I’m older now, I’m a man getting near middle age, putting on a little fat and I still love to walk along Fifth Avenue at three o’clock on the east side of the street between Fiftieth and Fifty-seventh Streets. They’re all out then, shopping, in their furs and their crazy hats...

It seems as if Michael is headed for a midlife crisis, and Frances worries that he will one day act on his attraction to other women. She says "'You’d like to be free to...'" but he cuts her off. She presses him, and he admits, "'Sometimes I feel I would like to be free.'"

Because the story consists only of a single conversation of an afternoon, it is unknown whether Michael Loomis will ever be unfaithful to his wife. But his extended confession about his attraction to other women is a true statement that he can't ever take back. The following quote details just how many types of women Michael enjoys seeing, including the story's titular phrase:

I like to sit near the women in the theatres, the famous beauties who’ve taken six hours to get ready and look it. And the young girls at the football games, with the red cheeks, and when the warm weather comes, the girls in their summer dresses.

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