Labor Day weekend has come and gone. Now, we’re looking ahead toward fall, chilly weather, and the holiday season.
For many of us, this means storing our summer toys and heading indoors. For the fashion-savvy, it also means putting away all-white clothes until Memorial Day.
The “no white after Labor Day” rule has been a fashion institution for the past century. But as it turns out, this age-old tradition has a pretty shady origin.
White Is Cool (Literally)
One unfamiliar with American fashion history might justify the “no white post-Labor Day” rule by functionality. White is a cool, reflective color. So, it’s a sensible fashion choice for summer.
According to American Fashion author Charlie Scheips, beating the heat became en vogue in the early to the mid-20th century. “All the magazines and tastemakers were centered in big cities,” Scheips tells Time.
These cities were “usually in northern climates that had seasons,” he continues. “In the hot summer months, white clothing kept New York fashion editors cool. But facing, say, heavy fall rain, they might not have risked sullying white ensembles in mud.”
Thus, fashion mags like Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue equated white wardrobes and summer. And at first glance, this theory seems innocent enough.
Sure, white linen is cool. But white wool is warm. The fabric itself, not the color, makes something appropriate for warm or cool weather.
In other words, I wasn’t buying this functional theory. Neither was Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
“Very rarely is there actually a functional reason for a fashion rule,” Steele told Time.
Separating The Elite From The Working Class
Our outward appearance serves many purposes, one being to indicate socioeconomic status. Throughout history, we have used clothing, cosmetics, jewelry, weight, and skin color to ask: how rich are you?
At one time, obesity was a sign of enormous wealth. Tanned skin indicated a hard-earned living until Coco Chanel returned from vacation bronze-skinned in 1923. And in the early 19th century, white clothing became synonymous with leisure.
“If you look at any photograph of any city in America in the 1930s, you’ll see people in dark clothes,” Schieps says. Thus, the working class “uniform” became dark clothing that hid the dirt and grime of the city.
In contrast, white clothing indicated a life far removed from dirt and grime. Moreover, having seasonal clothing at all was a sign of huge wealth.
Separating The Rich From The Richer
Fashion “rules” like this one separated more than just the “wealthy” and the “not wealthy.” Indeed, these traditions also separated the elite from themselves—those in the know and those who weren’t.
As the middle class expanded in the 1950s, old-money elites looked for ways to distinguish themselves from the newly wealthy. They did so with vague rules to follow and faux pas to avoid.
“It was insiders trying to keep other people out,” says Steele, “and outsiders trying to climb in by proving they know the rules.”
Of course, any good fashion rule is meant to be broken. In an ironic twist, Coco Chanel famously broke this rule, confidently wearing crisp whites year-round.
(But if anyone could understand the arbitrary nature of fashion law, it would be the woman who invented a new trend by sheer, sunburnt accident.)
So, if fashionistas like Chanel were breaking this rule in the 1960s, is it even a thing anymore?
Technically Yes, But Just Barely
In 1988, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs embodied the “white equals luxury” mindset by throwing a massive all-white Labor Day party in the Hamptons. Bouncers turned away anyone who arrived in something short of an all-white ensemble.
(Except, randomly, for Jay-Z—but I can’t help but suspect there’s some rap game seniority at play there.)
Parties like Diddy’s cemented the idea that all-white clothing is luxurious. Despite the last white party being in 2009, other less star-studded gatherings still occur today.
By now, most fashion publications will openly agree that white is appropriate for all seasons. However, you’d be hard-pressed to find many all-white options at most clothing stores post-September.
So, in theory, you can wear whatever you want. But indirectly speaking, we still associate white clothing with summer—wealthy or not.
White Parties Are Fun, No-White Rules Are Tacky
As Martha Stewart told The Hollywood Reporter, “Having an entire party all dressed in white was a stunning sight.” Other celebs like Paris Hilton called the aesthetic “iconic.”
All in all, there is something to be said about a good theme party. If you like the look of all-white and want to reserve it for an elegant, formal affair—then, by all means, go for it!
Otherwise, it’s time to start wearing white in cold weather. Go ahead, wear those white jeans with your favorite cashmere sweater. Embrace your inner go-go dancer at this year’s Thanksgiving dinner.
After all, if we weren’t supposed to wear white in cold weather, why did they make snowy faux-fur coats so adorably chic?