Summertime in pretty much any city is a different experience than any other season, but summer in New York is another world. Many of the people who can afford to escape from Gotham in July and August usually do so, and even if their numbers are relatively small among the city’s eight million souls, the extra elbow room that their absence provides the rest of us on the streets, at the museums and in the parks, bars and restaurants lends the metropolis a far less frenetic vibe.
It’s not that the city’s unique energy vanishes; instead, it’s directed toward the pursuit of leisure — street fairs, picnics and plays in the parks, free concerts, people-watching — rather than New Yorkers’ customary quests for money, power, fame, an apartment with two bathrooms. . . .
In the summer, despite baking in the sweltering heat, encountering undefinable and often jarring aromas around every street corner and dealing with the constant prospect of citywide blackouts, New Yorkers give themselves license to slow down. To cease striving. To breathe.
In August 1969, meanwhile, LIFE magazine was busy celebrating not the season itself, but the eye-popping fashions that the “young people” — which, judging by these pictures, meant anyone under the age of 40 — were sporting during the summer months. In a cover story shot by photographer Vernon Merritt III, LIFE lauded “That New York Look” with an almost poetic zeal:
New York City is a costume party for the young this summer, a party taking place outdoors, on the streets and in the parks. Long hair, long legs. The party is not always elegant, but it is completely alive.
It isn’t really hard to tell the boys from the girls, even when they are both in bell-bottoms, and of course most boys don’t put shoe polish on their eyes. All are wearing what they want to to wear, from the shortest skirts to the longest skins.
How they look depends partly on where they go. The ferry is different from a Seventh Avenue lunch stand — and very different from Central Park.
The look is not what New York calls sophisticated, but even so, it catches the eye. Many of the girls seem to get their kicks with makeup. They wear it anywhere — absolutely anywhere.
The important thing is to express yourself. Depending on your talents you can do it with a 25-key soprano Melodica or a long, cool stare. You choose. The New York look is a celebration of the self.
Here, in recognition of the singular look and feel of that long-ago New York summer, LIFE.com presents a number of the photographs that ran in the “New York Look” article, as well as some other, atmospheric shots that did not run in LIFE. Take a look — and then go ahead. Get outside. Take a stroll. Flirt. It’s summer, after all.