No White After Labor Day Origins

women in white dresses showing their ankles, Pensacola, Florida, 1905, from State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

Today is the day after U.S. Labor Day, which unofficially marks the end of summer. The rules of fashion say that one shouldn’t wear white after Labor Day. Personally, I don’t subscribe much to rules like this, but it is a curious mystery as to how it started.

Few academic texts explain how the no-white-after-Labor-Day rule began. Some historians believe it arose because the wealthy would wear light colors to keep cool in the hottest months when they summered in the country. Labor Day indicated their return to the city. In turn, the wealthy stopped wearing white to prevent the dirty city streets from marring their clothes. Darker colors don’t show dirt easily and were more appropriate for urban living.

But fashion historian and director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology Valerie Steele disagrees. In an interview for TIME she said, “very rarely is there actually a functional reason for a fashion rule.” Instead, Steele believes that it could have been symbolic and “insiders trying to keep other people out.” Fashion rules, such as no white after Labor Day, attempted to prevent new money from passing as old money.

I think it’s likely a mix of the two — a little function, a little elitism. The rule reached its climax in the mid 20th century with a huge popularity in etiquette manuals and columns, which spread the rule far and wide beyond the well off.

After the youthquake of the 60s, fashion rules mattered less and less. Nowadays we don’t have to look far to see women wearing white whenever it suits them.