Why can’t I wear white after Labor Day? Most of us have asked this question. Ask your average etiquette expert how that rule came to be, and chances are that even she couldn’t explain it. So why aren’t we supposed to wear white after Labor Day?
One common explanation is practical. For centuries, wearing white in the summer was simply a way to stay cool — like changing your dinner menu or putting slipcovers on the furniture. But, beating the heat became fashionable in the early to mid-20th century. All the magazines and taste-makers were centered in big cities, usually in northern climates that had seasons. In the hot summer months, white clothing kept New York fashion editors cool. This sounds logical but that’s exactly why it may be wrong.
Instead, other historians speculate, the origin of the no-white-after–Labor Day rule may be symbolic. In the early 20th century, white was the uniform of choice for Americans well-to-do enough to decamp from their city digs to warmer climes for months at a time: light summer clothing provided a pleasing contrast to drabber urban life.
Labor Day, celebrated in the U.S. on the first Monday of September, marked the traditional end of summer; the well-heeled vacationers would stow their summer duds and dust off their heavier, darker-colored fall clothing. Year ago there was a feeling of returning to the grind after Labor Day. You’re back in the city, back at school, back doing whatever you’re doing in the fall — and so you have a new wardrobe.
By the 1950s, as the middle class expanded, the custom had calcified into a hard-and-fast rule. Along with a slew of commands about salad plates and fish forks, the no-whites dictum provided old-money with a marker of class versus classless. But such rules were adopted by middle class and poor too. It was used as a marker that they were savvy enough to learn all the rules and increased their odds of earning a ticket into polite society.