Thank goodness that Emily Post’s Etiquette finally gives the thumbs up for wearing white after Labor Day.
No one knows precisely how this old-fashioned rule came to be. Banning white is absurd for people in warm weather climates like La Jolla where the year-round temperature averages 70 degrees and the sun shines well into the fall.
A few theories surround the rule’s origin.
History of White After Labor Day
Labor Day started marking the end of summer when it was declared a federal holiday in 1894.
Before air conditioning and other modern cooling conveniences, wearing white was merely a way to stay cool in hot summer months. People back then wore heavier, formal clothing year-round. A big, long-sleeved dress in a New York City August is indeed not ideal. If I had to wear one, you bet it would be white.
In the early to mid 20th century, most of the high fashion magazines and socialites were located in New York where the weather is seasonal, requiring a complete change of wardrobe from summer to winter months. Here, white was associated with resort wear and worn by those fortunate enough to summer near the beach (translation: the wealthy). White transitioned out around Labor Day as darker colors rotated back into cold weather wardrobes.
Wealthy people tried to distinguish themselves by adhering to etiquette rules, such as this one. People could tell who was in-the-know or not what they wore in addition to things like whether their place settings involved multiple forks, spoons, and knives created explicitly for various dishes. Around the 1950s, fashion magazines carried rules like this into print and influenced the middle class also to conform.
The not wearing white after Labor Day rule initially applied to all clothing and shoes, not just pants and shoes as you hear it re-told now. Seersucker for men was also on the post-Labor Day no-no list.
Along Came Winter White
This warmer color of white later became an acceptable color to wear between Labor Day and Memorial Day. There’s no doubt that a pretty winter white dress at a holiday party is stunning when everyone else is probably wearing black.
Modern Day Application of White After Labor Day
Quick searches on department store websites yield plenty of white and winter white options in clothing and shoes, even now. Heck, Coco Chanel wore white year-round. In a nutshell, practicality is why there’s no need to pack away white clothes come September.
In winter, you’ll see me in plenty of bright white long-sleeved T-shirts and jeans (my staple). In fact, that’s what I’m wearing as I type this.