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Toes in the sand, style on point.
When it comes to deciding what to wear to the beach, dresses are the answer. You can slip one on and go, layering it over all sorts of swimsuits and then tucking it into your tote when it’s time to soak up the rays. When happy hour rolls around, you can throw the dress back on and instantly look ready for the bar or restaurant.
Beach dresses come in many silhouettes and materials, but the most important factor when choosing one is ease. Our favorite styles feature effortless silhouettes that are universally flattering, easy-to-care-for materials that can stand up to saltwater and sunblock, and simple details that work for all sorts of occasions. Of course, the best options are also versatile enough to wear on the mainland — why save the good stuff for PTO when you can show it off all season long?
To help us assemble the ideal lineup of beach dresses, we spoke to four style experts who offered their favorite picks along with advice for how to style and care for them. Ahead, shop the pretty and practical dresses that made the cut, and prepare to serve up style on the sandbar.
Best Overall: Hill House Home The Ellie Nap Dress
What We Love: A flattering silhouette, breathable material, and feminine details make this dress an all-around winner.
What We Don’t Love: The dress isn’t fully lined, so you may need to layer a slip under lighter shades.
The Ellie Nap Dress by Hill House Home has been a fan-favorite for several seasons running, and for good reason. With its flattering A-line silhouette and feminine touches (a stretchy smocked bodice, tiered skirt, and dreamy ruffles, to name a few), this dress looks beautiful on everyone. The smocked bodice and straps allow the dress to mold to your body, making it an ideal style for those who are pregnant or breastfeeding. It also works for every occasion from casual outings to beach-attire weddings, thanks to its breathable materials and classic prints.
We love that this dress comes in a wide range of colors and materials, though some may be more practical for beach days than others. We recommend opting for the cotton options because the lightweight, yet sturdy fabric will help regulate temperature more than its polyester counterparts. It isn’t fully lined, which may make it less suitable for walking around on the boardwalk post beach, but it will feel even more breezy that way. Picking cotton also makes it a bit trickier to care for — you’ll have to wash it cold and lay it flat to dry because the dryer can fade or damage the material. That said, we give this dress our full stamp of approval.
Price at time of publish: $150
Materials: Cotton | Colors: 18 | Size Range: XXS-XXL
Best Budget: H&M Drawstring-Detail Dress
What We Love: Adjustable drawstring details make this affordable dress a great choice for the beach and beyond.
What We Don’t Love: This style doesn’t have any pockets.
What’s beachier than a breezy dress with neutral stripes? Tina Low, a size-inclusive stylist who goes by Heensie, swears by H&M for budget-friendly, summer dresses that come in plus-sizes. She’s a fan of this dress thanks to its staple shades, adjustable waist, and breathable, lightweight cotton construction. The only thing that could make this style better? Pockets, but that’s only a minor flaw. Pair it with sporty slides in a neutral hue — right now, we’re very into this ultra-comfortable sandal by Message.
Price at time of publish: $40
Materials: Cotton | Colors: 3 | Size Range: XS-XXL
Best Splurge: Mara Hoffman Sloan Dress
What We Love: The crinkly modal fabric is a forgiving choice for beach days and dressier occasions alike.
What We Don’t Love: The light shade shows dirt easily.
Imagine owning a dress you can pack into your carry-on or beach tote with reckless abandon. A dress you could wear while combing the beach for pretty shells before attending a fancy seaside dinner. A dress that requires minimal effort, yet does the most. According to New York-based fashion consultant and stylist Cat Pope, this is that dress, and we wholeheartedly agree. “I think this dress is having a big moment and it’s a versatile option for many ventures — beach days included,” she says. Thanks to the popcorn texture, the fabric doesn’t show wrinkles easily, so we would definitely call it suitcase-friendly; however, you might have a tougher time getting stains out of it because of the light colorway. But we do like how versatile the cream shade makes it to accessorize. Style this splurge-worthy frock with a pair of fisherman sandals for a daytime stroll, or dress it up with strappy heels and a sleek clutch for a night out.
Price at time of publish: $595
Materials: Tencel modal | Colors: 1 | Size Range: XXS-3X
Best Plus-Size: OSEI DURO Bating Dress in Serene Dreams
Anyone planning on heading out to a tropical getaway needs to toss this gorgeous batik dress into their suitcase. Its batwing sleeves and plunging neckline give it an effortless bohemian quality, while its elasticized waist makes it a universally flattering (and comfortable) option. Heensie calls it “perfect for people who want a fun pop of color without being over the top about it.”
Price at time of publish: $280
Materials: Rayon batiste | Colors: 1 | Size Range: XXS-4XL
Related: The 16 Best Beach Sandals in 2023
Best Maxi: Free People La La Maxi Dress
What We Love: Free-flowing material, fluttery sleeves, and a nipped-in waist — what’s not to love?
What We Don’t Love: Reviewers note that this dress runs very large, so size down.
Maxi dresses have a reputation for being excellent beach dresses — long, fluid, breezy, what more could you want? We particularly liked the gauzy material on this pick from Free People. The flowing silhouette, made possible with a blend of wrinkle-resistant polyester and viscose fabric, gives it the carefree vibe we crave on vacation. And while the low-cut neckline might see complicated to work around, we love the idea of letting your bathing suit poke through the top as you toss this dress on to head to lunch. The fluttery sleeves will also cover a variety of bathing suit styles and provide some extra sun protection. The style is meant to be oversized, but even so, it runs a bit large so size down.
Price at time of publish: $98
Materials: Elastane, viscose, polyester | Colors: 8 | Size Range: XS-XL
Best Midi: Solid & Striped The Eyelet Amelia Dress
What We Love: Eyelet details lend a modern touch to this classic silhouette.
What We Don’t Love: The narrow band of fabric at the bust doesn’t offer much coverage.
Solid & Striped makes some of our favorite bathing suit designs, so it’s no surprise that the brand has beach dresses down to a science, too. This cotton midi dress is a one-and-done wardrobe hero that you can throw on for a day by the waves or drinks by the pool. The oversized eyelet cutouts add a playful touch while a full skirt adds movement and volume. Since the band covering the bust is a bit narrow, the style may be better suited for those with smaller chests or anyone that isn’t afraid to show some underboob. Pair the midi with chunky slides and a casual canvas tote.
Price at time of publish: $174
Materials: Cotton | Colors: 2 | Size Range: XS-XL
Best Mini: A.L.C. Camilla Cotton Mini Dress
What We Love: The cheerful print of this dress paired with its babydoll silhouette is just too good to pass up.
What We Don’t Love: The dress needs to be dry cleaned, which is a lot of effort for a beach dress.
This cotton mini dress is what beach day dreams are made of. The abstract floral print and combination of bright orange and pink scream summer, whether you are spending it at the Hamptons or on a tropical vacay. We love the way its tiered babydoll silhouette barely touches the body, making it the ideal choice for extra-balmy days. Plus, the loose shape lets you layer all kinds of swimsuits underneath. While the brand does recommend dry cleaning the cotton material, the print shouldn’t show stains too easily. For some extra sun protection, we recommend pairing this dress with a hat. California-based designer Janessa Leone makes ultra-chic styles that are luxe and easy to pack. For a beach-going ensemble, we’d recommend the Felix hat for maximum shade and style.
Price at time of publish: $255
Materials: Cotton | Colors: 1 | Size Range: 00-14
Best Cover Up: Farm Rio Blue Painted Birds Maxi Cover-Up
What We Love: Farm Rio’s lively pattern and delicate embroidery make this cover-up a standout choice.
What We Don’t Love: This dress shouldn’t go through the dryer, so prepare to hang-dry.
We could write a whole story on our favorite Farm Rio dresses, but as far as coverups go, this one takes the cake. If its vibrant pattern isn’t enough to convince you of its charm, look closer — the scoop neckline and tassels are decorated with tiny, colorful beads. Three-quarter sleeves will keep your shoulders covered when the sun comes out and shield you from the breeze if the weather turns chilly. While coverups tend be to more casual and revealing, this one provides ample coverage, so we can wear it as a regular dress beyond the beach. To maintain the shape and print, the brand recommends hang drying, which can take some more time, so be sure to factor that into your laundry schedule.
Price at time of publish: $215
Materials: Cotton | Colors: 1 | Size Range: XS-XL
Best Knit: DISSH Nate Black Sleeveless Maxi Dress
What We Love: A removable slip takes this classic dress from the beach to the streets with ease.
What We Don’t Love: The crochet fabric stretches out with wear, but goes back to its original fit after washing.
We love the new collection from Australian brand DISSH, which is known for turning out elevated basics in luxe materials like linen, satin, and silk. This crochet knit dress is no exception — it wears like a dream, thanks to its body-hugging material and gently flared silhouette. Due to the nature of the fabric, the dress will stretch out with wear, but all it takes is a wash it to get it back to its original fit. A removable slip gives you the option to wear it as a semi-sheer coverup or a classic maxi dress. But do note that the slip underneath tends to run small, so keep that in mind when selecting a size. Style this slinky number with monochrome accessories like a pair of ivory sunglasses and black flats.
Price at time of publish: $210
Materials: Viscose, nylon | Colors: 1 | Size Range: XS-XL
Best Linen: Reformation Aubree Linen Dress
What We Love: A relaxed fit and tie straps make this a comfortable and customizable option for the beach.
What We Don’t Love: The length may feel a bit too short for those who are tall.
This Reformation dress is a masterclass in simplicity; linen fabric, a streamlined silhouette, and a modern square neckline make this mini one of our favorite casual pieces for the beach and beyond. “Less is more when you’re at the beach, but you can still have fun with it,” says New York based stylist Morgan Greer Lipsiner. “If you want to spice it up, opt for a bold and bright color like Barbiecore pink.” While shorter figures will love the mini length, those who are tall may find the dress a tad too short.
Price at time of publish: $98
Materials: Linen | Colors: 6 | Size Range: XS-XL
Best Dressy: Rhode Paolo Dress
What We Love: The elegant halter top paired with delicate embroidery and shell appliques is just divine.
What We Don’t Love: Because of its intricate composure, this dress requires extra care. It’s dry clean only, which may not be the right choice for everyone.
Every once in a while, a special beach day calls for a special dress. Weddings, engagement parties, family pictures, and formal dinners are just a few examples that come to mind, and this exquisite Rhode dress is prepared to shine at each and every one. Feast your eyes on all of its beautiful details: an elegant halter neckline that exposes just a sliver of skin, beaded pinwheels that punctuate its black linen fabric, and tassels crafted with iridescent shells that sway with each step. This dress is ready to rise to any occasion.
Price at time of publish: $625
Materials: Cotton, linen | Colors: 3 | Size Range: 0-14
What to Keep in Mind
Materials and Care
Whether you live in a place that is hot or are traveling to a warmer climate, it’s likely that the weather at the beach will be toasty, to say the least. Dressing for sultry conditions is best done with materials that are lightweight and breathable, and when you add saltwater and sand to the mix, only a handful of fabrics will do. Those fabrics include cotton, linen, and some blends of viscose and polyester.
Each of these materials come with their own care stipulations: cotton can be hand- or machine-washed but should be line-dried to preserve the fit and color. Linen follows the same general rules, but should be dried flat and requires a steam or iron to remove wrinkles post-washing. Knit pieces need to be washed on delicate or by hand, and should always be laid flat to dry — this helps them retain their shape. Make sure to store them folded, rather than hanging, otherwise they’ll stretch out.
"My number-one suggestion is to avoid the dryer as much as possible to extend the lifespan of your pieces,” says Low. “I don’t put anything in the dryer that I genuinely care about. If you hate ironing, having a small handheld steamer will help you combat wrinkles in cotton and linen without making it an arduous process.”
Traveling with your beach dresses? Be sure to pack them with care. “I always roll my dresses when traveling,” says Pope. “This helps save space and prevent wrinkles. I also love bringing one garment bag with special pieces inside. I usually fold down the garment bag in an S shape at the top of my suitcase and hang it once I get to my destination.”
Just like everyday clothing, it’s important to choose the right beach dress for the occasion. Some are versatile and can easily go from sandbar to sidewalk, but there are certain details that set apart casual and more formal options. For a dressier look, Shopbop Fashion Director Caroline Maguire suggests longer pieces that make a striking impression on the beach. “I’d opt for a strapless maxi silhouette and dress it up with platforms and a bold lip,” she says. Lipsiner agrees, noting that length is her favorite way to level up a beach look. “A cut-out or unexpected details, like embroidery or appliques, can elevate your beach dress as well,” she says. With its embroidery and seashell appliques, Rhode Paolo Dress is our pick for creating a dressy beach look.
On casual beach days, Maguire says versatility is key. “Go for a dress that’s short and sweet — something you can easily throw-on and wear to run errands, but also as a cover up at the beach,” she suggests. Long, unstructured dresses, like Free People La La Maxi Dress, are also great for laid-back days when you don’t want to try too hard. “Now is the time to lean into those billowing silhouettes,” says Heensie. “Opt for something very comfortable, loose, and relaxed. If it aligns with your personal style, a fun pattern or pop of bold color is a great choice, though neutrals work just as well — the silhouette and accessories make all the difference.”
While you may associate summer fashion with bright pops of color, there’s a practical reason why you should wear vivid shades on the beach. The more intense a hue, the better sun protection it provides, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. Though white tends to be a go-to summer shade, it actually provides less protection against the sun than dark colors like black, navy, or red. When selecting a color for your beach dress, consider how much protection you’ll need based on the location, activity, and time spent in direct sun. For the most sun protection, opt for a dress that comes in intense shades like Hill House Home The Ellie Eyelet Nap Dress. And don’t forget the sunscreen.
Your Questions, Answered
What is a beach dress?
A beach dress is a dress that is appropriate to wear in sunny, sandy, and potentially wet conditions. Some of them can easily double as sundresses, while others (for example, those with dramatic necklines, cut-outs, or sheer fabric) are not a fit for all settings. “A beach dress should be made from a breathable fabric that doesn’t feel sticky, like linen or cotton,” says Pope. “I prefer no zippers — a pullover or button option is best for me. It also must be easy to clean. You shouldn’t mind getting it grubby with sunblock or oil.”
“For me, a beach dress is lightweight and versatile,” says Lipsiner. “I opt for cotton fabrics that are quick to dry if they get wet. Bonus points if it folds up easily and doesn’t take up too much space in your beach bag.” Multi-functional dresses like these make for great wardrobe staples regardless of how much time you spend on the sand, so it’s always good to have a few on hand.
How do you style a beach dress?
Beach dresses are easy to style because the outfit work is already done, leaving you room to play with accessories. We love layering on gold jewelry that will stand up to the elements and adding little touches like a pair of sunglasses or a chic neck scarf to dress things up. The right footwear is of paramount importance, so consider the occasion, setting, and comfort when selecting your shoes. “For a day at the shore, pair your favorite beach dress with simple flat sandals — ones that you can easily slip on and off as you walk along the water,” says Maguire. “For a dressier affair, reach for a clutch or bucket bag to elevate your look.”
Lipsiner suggests carrying a light cardigan and accessories if you need to take your outfit from day to night. “A cashmere beach sweater or a button down shirt are essentials in my beach bag,” she says. “To dress up your look, pack a statement earring for the evening. They don’t take up much space and can easily take your look from sandy and sunkissed to sleek and sophisticated.”
Why Shop With Us
Allison Taylor is a freelance commerce writer for InStyle, where she covers beauty, lifestyle, and fashion. She has nine years of experience researching and writing about style, and owns beach dresses from several brands in this story including DISSH, Rhode, Farm Rio, and Hill House Home. For this piece, she interviewed four style experts: Caroline Maguire, Morgan Greer Lipsiner, Cat Pope, and Heensie. After researching their beach dress recommendations and trying out a few of them herself, she put together this edit, which covers the best styles for different occasions, body types, and budgets.
Related: The 18 Best Sundresses in 2023
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