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Our readers are very fashion conscious and wouldn’t want to do anything that would offend high society ladies. And nothing is more untoward or gauche than wearing white after Labor Day. But why…and does it still matter in the year 2016? No, it doesn’t matter anymore…but here’s the story of why it once did.
In the wealthy East Coast communities of the late 1800s and early 1900s wearing clean, pristine, white clothes unspoiled by hard labor in the summer months sent the message of wealth. White clothes were highly fashionable, and thus expensive, and also prevented those who wore them from burning up in the sun. For that reason, white became known as a “summer color.” But as the middle class and suburbs grew in the early 20th century, so too did the middle class’s desire to emulate the wealthy. One way they did that was wearing the unofficial uniform of the rich: white clothes. The wealthy, high society circles didn’t appreciate their thing getting co-opted by others, so a new fashion rule was established among the tight-knit East Coast elite: Keep wearing white during the summer months only, because it was functional to do so. But once Labor Day rolled around (more or less the official end of summer, which became a federal holiday in 1894), they stopped. Those who kept wearing white after early September, the reasoning went, could be quickly identified as not really wealthy, but rather imitators and pretenders.
The middle classes eventually got wind of the “don’t wear white after Labor Day” rule, with fashion magazines “breaking” the news as late as the 1950s. Some major fashion players ignored it—Coco Chanel, for example, liked to wear white year-round. But otherwise, it’s a notion that’s stuck in the public’s mind as “proper fashion” ever since.
By the way, it’s appropriate to start wearing white again on Memorial Day weekend.