What Exactly Is Chambray, Summer’s Coolest Fabric?

Rails chambray shift dress

SHOP: Rails Anya check chambray shift dress

Cotton is definitely the fabric of our lives during the summer months. No other textile wears quite as well in the heat and comes in so many varieties. One of cotton’s most common fashion constructions is denim, a summer staple in the form of cutoffs and, in recent seasons, the form of anything. But the problem with denim is that it can really heat up.

Perhaps you’ve already met chambray, denim’s lightweight doppelgänger. Denim is rugged and heavy (usually) on account of its diagonal weave. Like most other cloths, chambray is plainly woven, or done in a crisscross method, making it airier. Both denim and chambray are made with a colored yarn in the warp and a white yarn in the weft. Because of denim’s diagonal weave, it exposes two times the amount of colored yarn than chambray. This is why denim usually has a white backing—its weft is the unexposed white yarn. Chambray, because it is evenly woven, is a blend of the colored and white yarns—hence its lighter overall shade.

Michael Stars chambray dress

SHOP: Michael Stars button front chambray maxi dress

This season, designers are loving the soft but durable fabric and finding inventive ways to bring it into the fashion fold. Beyond the basic button-up, chambray is showing up in dresses, jumpsuits, pants and sneakers. The light denim shade is almost a neutral, permitting it to mix effortlessly in an array of outfits. Although chambray is a casual material, it can be dressed up when paired with suiting separates: a chambray shirt under a sport coat is instant business casual. A chambray dress with heels is date-night or afternoon-party appropriate. Even with a slight wrinkle in it, chambray looks crisp and cool.

Madewell jumpsuit
SHOP: Madewell cropped chambray jumpsuit

Back detail of the Kendall + Kylie keyhole back chambray top

In addition to the various shapes of chambray this spring and summer, we’re also seeing playful embellishments (like this keyhole back) crop up. Frayed edges create frilly ruffles on skirts and shirts. Embroidery in white and ivory adds a pretty, artisan-inspired trim. In men’s clothing, herringbone and check prints on the chambray help to dress up what otherwise look like rugged work shirts, while light jackets and shorts evoke a summer spent sailing—the fabric is undeniably preppy yet practical.

For an everyday look, pairing chambray with jeans is completely acceptable—just ignore those “Canadian tuxedo” haters. Our tip when it comes to doubling down on these cotton fabrics? Experiment with different washes and shades; perhaps strap on a leather belt to add contrast and shape to your outfit. But this trend’s staying power is true blue.


SHOP: Kendall + Kylie keyhole back chambray shirt

SHOP: chambray 

—Britt Olson