Labor Day dilemma: Is it cool to wear white?

Posted at 2:06 PM, Sep 05, 2016

“Don’t wear white after Labor Day!” chirp the ancient etiquette experts and the aunties glaring over their plates of ambrosia salad at your snowy mid-September outfit. Are we still doing that old fashion rule, or nah?

Survey says: Nah. You’re mostly good. Here’s what you need to know to bury that notion once and for all.

It probably started with the rich and hot. Literally hot.

Where did we even get this idea that the calendar turns to a different day and suddenly white clothing is a no-go? Honestly, fashion experts aren’t sure, but there are two solid theories that inform each other. Both are rooted in the basic idea that white clothing is typically cooler and therefore is most practical in hotter weather.

1. Most fashion capitals are in the northern US where the summer/fall seasonal shift also represents the start of cooler weather. So the move away from white was encouraged.

Fashion magazines and the media upper crust have always informed trends, that’s no secret. So it stands to reason the climate and logistics of living somewhere like New York City would play into some big fashion trends.

“All the magazines and tastemakers were centered in big cities, usually in northern climates that had seasons,” Charlie Scheips, author of “American Fashion,” told TIME in 2012. Therefore, when the blustery, muddy fall came, white clothing became not only impractical but a fashion faux-pas waiting to happen.

2. Enforcing the “no white” rule helped the upper class feel special.

This theory stems from the idea that upper-class ladies in post-Civil War America took great pride in finding new and exciting ways to enforce the exclusivity of their social strata. It wasn’t enough that you had money, you had to use that money to look and act a certain way, and when Labor Day was made an official holiday in 1894, it made the perfect invisible line over which light, white summer clothing could not cross.

Adding to this theory is the notion that white is the premium choice for resort wear, AKA clothing for rich people on vacation. This idea was carried through the 1950s and beyond, where fashion magazines and nosy aunties reinforced the rule.

Modern etiquette experts are (mostly) down with white

In case “It’s just a classist cultural relic” isn’t enough of a comeback for you, set any white clothing-shamers straight with the words of some well-regarded etiquette experts, starting with the de facto queen of classy fashion, Coco Chanel.

Chanel was well-known for wearing white year-round, which really threw shade on the old Labor Day rule. After all, if it was good enough for Coco Chanel, it was good enough for anyone who sought to emulate her.

More recently, fashion magazines have moved away from the rule and regularly put out suggestions on how to wear fall and winter whites. A 2011 People poll shows nearly 60% of respondents would totally wear white after Labor Day, and 30% would consider it, depending on the outfit. That means only about 10% of people thought white was totally verboten.

Emily Post, perhaps the most trusted name in modern etiquette, suggests that white isn’t the real issue here.

“Of course you can wear white after Labor Day, and it makes perfect sense to do so in climates where September’s temperatures are hardly fall-like,” she wrote on the subject. “It’s more about fabric choice today than color. Even in the dead of winter in northern New England the fashionable wear white wools, cashmeres, jeans, and down-filled parkas. The true interpretation is ‘wear what’s appropriate — for the weather, the season, or the occasion.'”

Etiquette expert Elaine Swann is on board:

“It’s perfectly fine to wear white after Labor Day whether you are on the West Coast in California or southeast in Florida or in the northern part of our nation in New York. The shades of white such as bright, bright white or winter white or an eggshell white all (have to do with the) ensemble.”

Now, if anachronistic fashion rules are kinda your thing, you can still eschew white and not be considered a relic. Etiquette consultant Diane Gottsman proposes this compromise:

“I wear white with caution after Labor Day and concentrate on variations of winter white, beige and cream.”