It's After Labor Day. Are You Wearing White?

5 years ago

I’m anything but a fashionista. My closet is lined with seasons past, off the rack. But like any good Southern girl, I was brought up with a healthy respect for the number one fashion rule: wear no white after Labor Day.

My earliest dress-up memories involve little white gloves with pearl buttons and white patent shoes, Sunday best attire that must have been a nightmare for my mother to keep clean at our rural Florida home. She added a white pill box hat to her ensemble. In those days, Labor Day meant no more white shorts, shirts, shoes, dresses, slacks, jackets, and anything else that might qualify as a fashion faux pas until the dawn of Easter Sunday. Meanwhile, we opted for other colors, except black, typically reserved for funerals.

These days, I am proud to be liberated from such nonsense.

I live in northeast Oklahoma, where today, one day after Labor Day, heat indices are expected to hit 110 and record temperatures are predicted through October. Because of an extensive drought, we remain under a burn ban. I don’t leave the house without a jug of water, and avoid going outdoors, except under duress.

To be denied lightweight white clothing would be cruel and unusual punishment in these times. So that little custom about packing away white clothing after Labor Day can take a hike.

In fact, it already has, according to one friend who says the rules changed in the 1980s. I’m embarrassed to say that, in traditional non-fashionista style, I continued to spend Labor Day evenings tucking summer wear into plastic clothes bins well into the ‘00s. Only a few years ago did I abandon this habit. Liberation came to my fall wardrobe in the form of white capris on Thanksgiving Day. It was 90 degrees in November. Just how long can we keep up traditions that don’t fit the way we live?

I owe this awakening to a college student whom I never met but whose white shorts inspired the “aha” moment that made me question the fashion guidelines learned from my mother and aunts. It was an unseasonably warm autumn day. Fortuitous was I to grab the last parking spot in the lot nearest my office after a late lunch. “Doesn’t she know the rule?” I wondered as the co-ed in white shorts hurried past my car. I reached for my seasonally correct black wool-blend jacket and trudged onward through the day.

It was then I noticed that there were violators all around me. Someone in my office was wearing a white t-shirt; another had on white slacks! And I remembered seeing the president’s secretary in a white linen jacket earlier in the day. I hung up my own jacket, rolled up my sleeves, and pondered the women’s liberation movement that was supposed to have freed us to be ourselves. Did that include making our own fashion rules?

As a college student during Gerald Ford's administration, when many of us wore non-conformity as a badge of honor, wearing white after Labor Day didn't warrant discussion. It simply wasn't done. I’ve no doubt my dorm mates would have heckled anyone in the halls who slipped up and wore white bell-bottoms to class in September.

But like a lot of other rules and traditions, no-white doesn’t fit in a post-911, global-warming world. On my day of awakening, as I noticed friends and co-workers who are fashionistas breezing through that hot, humid fall afternoon dressed according to the weather and not some outdated rule, I felt like the Equal Rights Amendment of 1973 had finally passed.

As it turns out, the no-white rule traces back to a time when the wealthy fled crowded, industrial cities when the school year ended for vacation homes where cool, white clothing was preferred. From a practical standpoint, it reflected the hot sun and better suited their leisurely summer activities. So the rich owned separate summer wardrobes distinguished by the color white, from the tips of their fedora hats to the toes of their patent leather shoes.. Socially, it signified affluence, in contrast to those who remained to toil in their year-round grays and browns. Labor Day – a Populist holiday, created in tribute to the workers who made these annual pilgrimages possible – signaled the official end of summer. And so those who stepped off the ferry or detrained from the Orange Blossom Special conveyed status to those left behind, showing off in white before transitioning back to the real world and colder weather, darker colors and heavier fabrics.

Fast forward past the Great Depression and World War II to a country of baby boomers whose birthright included summer vacations in automobiles that took them to all manner of magical places. As Americans caught the travel bug, family summer wardrobes took on a casual, comfortable look previously reserved for the privileged. People on vacation required lighter, cooler clothing that's easy to wash and wear. What better than white? And so the masses, too, marked Labor Day with a wardrobe change as school started and work schedules returned to normal. We were following a practical tradition.

Enter fashion designers whose mission it was to define the rules by which the well-dressed should abide. Seasonal wardrobes became more distinctive (in places other than Florida, where in theory we could, and often did, wear the same clothes year-round) to support the burgeoning ready-to-wear industry. To display any degree of fashion sense, it was imperative to pack away white on Labor Day and introduce darker, more autumnal colors on racks and backs. Even in tropical Florida.

An informal poll of friends and family reveals most of us are independent thinkers when it comes to the clothes we wear. Give us simplicity, comfort over style, practicality over fashion, and forget about rules whose time has passed. If you aren’t making your own rules, you’re falling behind the times. That makes us fashionistas, one and all.

So here’s to wearing white, or any other color, after Labor Day. And that’s how it should be.

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