Labor Day, the first Monday of September, became a U.S. federal holiday in 1894, paying tribute to the contributions of American workers. It has also become the traditional end of summer — a time when vacations wrap up, school begins, and, of course, white polos, jeans, and dresses are packed away for eight months until Memorial Day. Not wearing white after Labor Day has become one of the most firmly fixed “rules” of American fashion as seen in memes, commercials, TV shows, and movies: In the sitcom Frasier, snobbish Niles Crane (David Hyde Pierce) believes true love is “sharing a laugh together when you see someone wearing white after Labor Day;” in the rom-com Never Been Kissed (1999), fashion victim Josie Geller (Drew Barrymore) is the object of ridicule when she dares to wear an all-white ensemble to her first day of high school. The “no white after Labor Day” rule has been a style mandate for over a century, but its origins remain murky.
White Fabric Was Often Breezier
One of the most commonly cited explanations for this fashion rule is practical. Before the invention of air conditioning, wearing white was an effective way of staying cool in the sweltering heat of summer. While today’s breezy shorts and t-shirts are generally a summer wardrobe staple, clothing in the late 19th and early 20th century, particularly for women, was multi-layered, heavy, and often covered the entire body. White fabric was typically lighter weight and allowed for at least some defense against sweaty conditions.
By the mid-20th century, beating the heat became a fashionable pursuit. According to American Fashion author Charlie Scheips, “All the magazines and tastemakers were centered in big cities, usually in northern climates that had seasons.” In the hot and humid urban landscape of New York City, white cotton kept fashion editors breezy and cool. The trend was then cemented in magazines like Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, setting the fashion standard throughout the country.
Wearing White Was a Status Symbol
Though sensible, this history of the rule has its skeptics. Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, explains, “Very rarely is there actually a functional reason for a fashion rule.” Some fashion historians speculate that the “no white after Labor Day rule” may be more symbolic of social status. From the early 1900s, those wealthy enough to leave the city for vacation homes chose white as their uniforms of leisure, a welcome contrast to the dark, often drab, clothing of the city.
The ability to afford multiple wardrobes specific to location and season was a marker of extreme wealth. After Labor Day weekend, country estates were closed for the season, and summer whites were packed away, saving them from slush puddles, mud, and soot of a city winter. As Steele notes, “There used to be a much clearer sense of re-entry. 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."
It’s No Longer Considered a Faux Pas
By the 1950s, this trend became an iron-clad etiquette rule, a barrier built by the wealthy against the growing, aspirational middle class who, ironically, would adopt it in a bid to enter or emulate high society. Yet as with so many rules, this one was also made to be broken by both the counterculture and members of the fashion world. Coco Chanel famously made wearing white year-round the height of chic.
Today, designers like Michael Kors have challenged people to “ignore the old rules,” calling white after Labor Day “glamorous.” Even standard keeper Emily Post’s Etiquette gave the go-ahead to wear white after Labor Day in their 2004 edition, and Harper's Bazaar proclaimed in 2020: “Gone are the days when wearing white after Labor Day is considered an outfit faux pas. In fact, when done correctly, it's one of the quickest ways to achieve a clean and polished look with little to no effort… [T]here is a slew of winter-white outfit options that will make you rethink everything you knew about one of fashion's most-dated rules.”
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