We’ve all heard that Labor Day meant packing up our white clothes to make way for darker hues in our closets.
It wasn’t strictly enforced, of course, but I did put away my crisp Keds and all white outfits — mostly because Midwestern winters don’t pair well with light colors.
I don’t wear Keds anymore, but I think about that rule this time of year. And I’m not alone. The white vs. no white Labor Day debate earned a headline from Marie Claire as recently as July.
That piece undressed the history around this rule. It dates back to the late 1800s, when old-money socialites were trying to distinguish (and elevate) themselves from the younger, new-money crowd. Avoiding this fashion faux pas was a way to fit in with the upper class.
Social rules have relaxed a lot since then, but this one seems to hang on. Do many people abide by it? Do fashionistas?
Richard Parsakian almost always wears black, but as the owner of Eons Fashion Antique, he’s no stranger to historical fashion taboos. It’s not uncommon to see vintage pieces that reflect long-forgotten rules, he said.
“Of course, classic conservative designers like Ralph Lauren, who copied styles from the 1930s and 1940s, would use costume as a class distinction that reflected a mostly white, Anglo-Saxon point of view,” Parsakian said. “Materials such as linens and cottons were seen in the rich Hyannis Port, Martha’s Vineyard and Palm Beach playgrounds.”
Most of the avant garde designers whose work he “worships” rarely follow those rules. Instead, many combine white with black.
He does hear customers bring up the no-white-after-Labor-Day rule, “but mostly as a joke.”
Demeatria Boccella is involved in some of the biggest fashion events. She’s also the creator of FashionAFRICANA, which celebrates the beauty of the African Diaspora through fashion, dance and cultural events. She’s not afraid to dress models — or herself — in white at any time of year.
“As much as I love wearing black, I also love wearing white,” she said. “One of my favorite wardrobe items is a pair of white, wide-leg pants from the boutique, CHOICES.”
But that wasn’t always the case.
“For some reason, I was always conscious about not wearing white shoes after Labor Day,” she said. “Honestly, I do not remember why that was a thing in my household growing up. Thankfully, now anything goes in fashion.”
If anyone knows what people like to wear and when, it’s street-style photographer Chancelor Humphrey. He spends his days strolling the streets documenting their sartorial choices. There’s no clear consensus, in his opinion, about how people feel about wearing white year round.
“In the summertime, for sure, I see the white. But this fall I’m going to have to pay a little more attention,” he said. “I’m one of those people who usually don’t even pay attention to it.”
In his wardrobe, he tends to opt for darker colors in the cooler months.
“Fall is my favorite season. I wear a lot of brown,” he said. “But I would wear white after Labor Day. I don’t follow that rule.”
The question to wear or not wear white after Labor Day is more than a century old, but personal stylist and image consultant Christina Stein said it’s fresh in 2021.
Her advice: “Life is short. Wear what you want, no matter the color.”
But even that rule has its exceptions.
“Wearing white to a wedding is rather tacky,” she said. “However, white can create a very effortless and chic look in winter and spring months.”
For those who opt for white in the fall and winter, she recommends a fabric that suits the season.
“White linen in the dead of winter is vastly different than white wool,” Stein said.
Step inside boutiques such as Moda, and it’s clear what the retail industry thinks about the no-white-after-Labor-Day rule.
“Almost every single collection I’ve looked at had at least one white jean in it,” said Barone, the store’s owner. “I think everyone was trying to push a little bit of a feel-good season so they pushed lighter colors and brighter colors.”
Instead of looking at the calendar to decide when to wear white, he advises checking the weather forecast.
“I wouldn’t wear a white jean when it’s slushy out,” he said. “The Labor Day thing is definitely out, but maybe we’ll call it quits at Halloween.”
Sara Bauknecht writes for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.