Wednesday, August 17th, 2022

F Shopper Columns


Labor Day is now behind us, and so is the summer. Though fall doesn't officially begin until September 22, and although Hampton Roads temperatures are likely to remain in the 70s well into October, in the minds of most, Labor Day marks the end of summer. Its time to bid a fond farewell to vacations summer sports cookouts and pool parties. And, of course, everyone must stop wearing all white clothing until after Memorial Day 2022.
Really? Who says?
For over a century, the one "Fashion Rule" that nearly everyone knew was "Don't wear white after Labor Day." Where in the world did this idea come from, and do modern-day clothing designers and fashionistas agree with it?

The tradition of wearing white during the summer dates back to the late 1800s, before the advent of air-conditioning, ceiling fans, and electricity. It was also an age of modesty: floor-length dresses for women, along with high collars and long sleeves for everyone, male and female. It was a more formal time when everyone always dressed in layers regardless of the season. Men typically wore some sort of tie around their necks, along with vests and jackets whether they were wealthy gentlemen of leisure or working-class day laborers. Even farmhands working in fields wore vests and neckerchiefs. (Think of Western films and consider the layers of clothes worn by cowboys riding on the range.)
If one's body was always covered up in layers of clothing, it made sense to wear clothes made from lightweight fabrics (like cotton) in hot weather. White-colored fabrics reflect sunlight instead of absorbing it like dark-colored materials, so white became the color of choice for summer wear.

Of course, most Americans lived in rural farming communities until 1920, and farm families seldom had the money to buy white, lightweight clothes that could only be worn one out of four seasons. In the 1800s, cotton was expensive, no matter where one lived in the world - not to mention it wrinkled quickly and required more upkeep. Most Americans - working on farms and in urban factories or running their own shops and small businesses - simply didn't have the time to care for such clothing.

This was not the case for the small but steadily growing American upper class. After the Civil War, with the advent of national railroad lines, the oil industry, electricity, and indoor plumbing, the quality of life for Americans with money became very different. The so-called Gilded Age in the late 1800s saw the rise of a very rich American Upper Class who not only had unprecedented wealth but also a commodity that the vast majority of human beings since the beginning of recorded history had never enjoyed - leisure time.

These fortunate few had the means and the time to travel, not out of necessity but for fun, giving birth to something that most Americans now enjoy - vacations. During the summer, wealthy Americans left their homes in the nation's crowded, overheated urban centers or the sweltering Deep South for resort communities along New England's beaches and the Upper Midwest's Great Lakes.  Here they could relax on beaches, enjoy boating, and play tennis or croquet. Styles at the time dictated outfits for each of these activities - layers of white, lightweight cottony fabrics that were fitted enough to look fashionable but loose enough to move freely in. And thus, informal sportswear was born. Though casual by the standards of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, those clothes were still extremely formal by today's standards. Since these were the outfits that the rich wore to sweat in, the clothes required frequent washing and ironing. Because the rich could afford maids, butlers, and hired help to perform such menial tasks, sweating in their expensive white summer wear didn't cause them too much of a sweat.

After Labor Day, when the wealthy left their resort communities and returned to their homes in America's big cities, these summer whites were packed away until the following summer. Autumn brought inclement weather, and if one got caught in the rain while wearing summer whites, the lightweight material had a tendency to become somewhat transparent regardless of how many layers one wore.  White clothing worn casually on a beach or tennis court could begin looking dingy and dirty rather quickly when worn on the streets of a city. And so, a tradition was born among the well-to-do: "Don't wear white before Memorial Day or after Labor Day."

Snobs of all classes gradually got wind of the tradition, and whether they were members of established affluent families or "new money," they began enforcing it as a hard-and-fast rule. "It was the insiders trying to keep other people out," according to Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, "and outsiders trying to climb in by proving they know the rules."

By the 1950s, the rule became universal among Americans of all classes - whether they bought their clothes on Fifth Avenue or through the  Sears catalog. At the same time, the rule's origin faded from memory.

There were some holdouts to the rule - most notably, the world-famous 20th-century fashion designer Coco Chanel, who proudly wore white any time of the year she wished.

Does the rule still apply in 2021? 

The answer from today's leading fashion designers and style gurus is a resounding, "No!" Whether it's a white pair of pants or a skirt, a shirt or blouse, jacket, vest, hat, boots or shoes - if you like it and think you look good in it, wear it regardless of the season.