Labor Day is just around the corner. The on-paper function of the holiday, of course, is to honor the men and women whose toil makes the world go ’round. It also marks the unofficial end of summer and start of school. But for the fashion literate—even those only mildly so—Labor Day has a tertiary meaning: the official date after which it’s no longer appropriate to wear white. Jeans, sneakers, casual shirts—wearing white after Labor Day is a surefire way to get in trouble with the fashion police.
Yes, it’s arguably more en vogue these days to break the rules of style than to obey them. And yet, this rule is untouchable. Like “don’t mix your leathers” and “make sure your socks match,” “don’t wear white after Labor Day” is part of sartorial scripture. (To be fair, there are exceptions: button-downs, tee-shirts, knitwear. But, for the most part, if you’re unsure about what is and is not allowed, it’s safest to steer clear.)
In the coming weeks, you can bet on hearing someone or another hurl the phrase in accusatory manner. But, before you let someone get on their high horse for no reason, you should learn why “don’t wear white after Labor Day” became one of the fashion commandments in the first place—and why it might no longer make sense to follow the rule to a tee any longer.
“White is a very formal color,” says Patrick Kenger, a personal image consultant at Pivot Image. Because of the expense required to keep it clean—and avoid it shading into an unsavory cream color—a white uniform would typically denote that the wearer was a person of leisure. Thus, around the time Labor Day was introduced in America during the 1890s, white was a favorite of wealthy New Englanders, who would wear it on summer sojourns to stay cool. (Crucially, in the days before tank tops and t-shirts, the choice of color and fabric was just about all that distinguished a winter outfit from a summer one.)
After Labor Day, however, when it came time for high society return to the soot-covered, industrial northeastern cities where they made their living, white would no longer be a practical option for daily tasks. Instead, the affluent would swap out white linens for darker colors and fabrics to “mark the end of summer with a ‘get-back-to-work’ attitude.” Even if the exorbitant cleaning expenses required by the urban environment to keep whites white could be allayed, the color switch marked a change of mindset. By switching into the darker, dirt-obscuring shades of the laborer, wearers sought to signal that, despite appearances, life for them wasn’t all leisure—that was only the summer months.
If it wasn’t already clear, Kenger says, it’s a “dated rule that people no longer need.”
Still, it’s important to keep in mind that, like the gentlemen and women of yesteryear, “you don’t want to dress like you’re hanging on to those summer months.” So feel free to wear white—or don’t! But next time someone gets hung up on your lack of hue, just tell them you’re avoiding that “‘get-back-to-work’ attitude.” Surely, they’ll understand.