You may have heard about the fashion faux pas of wearing white after Labor Day. In the present, this tradition is usually treated as old fashioned and a joke. Few people will criticize you for wearing white articles of clothing after the first Monday in September, or even take notice of it except to wonder why it was ever a major concern at all.
Where did this tradition of white clothing going out of fashion after Labor Day come from, and why did it fade away like colorful fabric washed in a hot load in the washing machine?
In general, white makes sense for the heat of summer. Light-colored clothing reflects away the radiant heat of the sun, instead of absorbing it the way dark colors do, so for thousands of years of human history people have preferred to wear white clothing during the hotter months.
However, the idea of white as strictly fashionable during the summer season only emerged in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—the time when the very concept of “fashion” began to spread across the Western Hemisphere.
It was only the highest level of post-Civil War society in the U.S. that strict and often bizarre rules for fashion controlled whether someone was in with the “in” crowd. Compared to our ideas of what’s fashionable today, the Czars of Style in the 1880s were true despots. Things as trivial as sleeve length could determine whether a woman in high society—no matter her level of wealth—was fashionable or a pariah.
Wearing white during the only summer, when it was common for weddings and outdoor parties, was only of these restrictive society rules. When the U.S. government made Labor Day a federal holiday in 1894, the Fashion Czars gained a definite cut-off point for when wearing white was no longer “acceptable” in the upper echelons of wealthy society.
For many decades, this rule only applied to a small number of millionaire socialites in a few big cities, but in the 1950s it reached general fashion magazines that were read around the country and started to affect more people.
But time eventually broke apart this odd rule, and during the 1970s fashion became more individual. Some fashion legends, like Coco Chanel, also purposely rejected the restriction and wore white throughout the year. Today, the “no white after Labor Day rule” is little more than an amusing gag to tease friends, and almost nobody takes it seriously.
Whatever you choose to wear after Labor Day (and if it’s white, we won’t tease!), everyone here at Bartels Heating & Cooling hopes you have a happy end of the summer and great plans for the fall!