I’m old enough to remember a fashion saying that, even at the time, didn’t make much sense. “Never,” it was said, “wear white after Labor Day . . . or straw hats.” I recall there was a difference between summer clothes and fall clothes. Summer clothes were lighter, often sleeveless and generally more comfortable. Winter clothes were darker, more practical, and layered against the elements.
This morning when I started thinking about Labor Day as the end mark of summer, I remembered the saying. Notice that the ladies in this 1890 illustration from the Bloomingdale Brothers Summer Catalog aren’t wearing white. Nor do the clothes look comfortable. Only the hatless lady fourth from the left even seems to be wearing light weight clothing. Such are the vagaries of fashion.
My sleuthing on the subject of summer whites reveals that in the early Twentieth Century, wearing white in the summer symbolized wealth and ease. For one thing, people who wore white in the summer had more than one basic wardrobe. They could also afford laundresses to keep those whites shining as they reflected the sun.
There were a few practical reasons for wearing white. The fabric tended to be cotton or linen, both lighter and cooler. And white reflects the heat. So in places with demarcated seasons, it made sense to change the color palette with the seasons.
Wearing white was a status symbol. In the early Twentieth Century the fashionable folk generally left the hot grimy city for cooler locations. Actually, anyone who could afford to leave the city did. Those without extreme wealth went to less expensive accommodations and probably didn’t wear as much white.
Today we have air conditioning and central heating. We have washing machines. We have discount fashion outlets. We dress to suit ourselves. And we wear white whenever we wish. Labor Day still marks the end of summer, but it has nothing to do with fashion, or straw hats.
Featured Image: From the 1890 Bloomingdale’s Illustrated Fashion Catalogue. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons.
“Does Labor Day Signal the End of Wearing White?” Emily Post. Here.
Tyler Atwood. “Can You Wear White After Labor Day?” Bustle. Sept. 1, 2014. Here.
Laura Fitzpatrick. “Why We Can’t Wear White After Labor Day.” Time. Sept. 8, 2009. Here.
Jaime Ganson. “Dispelling the Myth: Wear White After Labor Day.” CBS Boston. Aug 30, 2011. Here.
John Surico. “The Reasons Behind No White After Labor Day Rule.” The Village Voice. Sept. 2, 2012. Here.
Sandra Wagner-Wright holds the doctoral degree in history and taught women’s and global history at the University of Hawai`i. Sandra travels for her research, most recently to Salem, Massachusetts, the setting of her new Salem Stories series. She also enjoys traveling for new experiences. Recent trips include Antarctica and a river cruise on the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel.
Sandra particularly likes writing about strong women who make a difference. She lives in Hilo, Hawai`i with her family and writes a blog relating to history, travel, and the idiosyncrasies of life.