The Reason(s) Behind the No-White-After-Labor-Day Rule (Blame the One Percent!)


Tomorrow is Labor Day – that first Monday of September where people eat, drink and travel, all in the name of summer’s end and universal workers’ rights. It is the mark of a season’s passing and one holiday that comes with a set rule overused in jokes and conversational side comments: you cannot wear white after Labor Day.

For whatever the reason, once that day came along on your calendar, it becomes socially unacceptable to wear the most basic color mankind has in his armoire. No more white tees, white underwear, white pants, white handkerchiefs and absolutely no white fedoras.

Well, I never understood this holiday law and, therefore, never abided by it. It just didn’t make sense to me: why would anyone not wear white after Labor Day? And when does that rule expire? Is January 1st like a reset button for this totalitarian fashion statement? Who was enforcing this rule, anyway? Was there actually fashion police out there, like that really shitty prime-time television show on E!? I was a curious child, nonetheless.

Well, this year I wanted to get to the bottom of these questions that I’ve been sheltering inside of me at the beginning of every September for years now. So, this morning, I did a bunch of research, flipped through a few files, dusted off some archives and found a handful answers to the no-white-after-Labor-Day social agenda.

1. Because Rich People Wore White. This was one of the more intriguing reasons I stumbled upon. During that whole Gilded Age period in American history (late 1800s, early 1900s), wearing white was a symbol of One Percent braggadocio. At summer’s onset, the laborers who couldn’t afford a ‘vacation’ because they were too busy slaving away on crumbs in the tenements on the Lower East Side would keep on the black, drab suits often seen in some of the earliest photographs. While on vacation, the hoity-toity would bask in their Standard Oil money by wearing white to distinguish themselves from the flock and show off the privileges of knowing Nelson D. Rockefeller to fellow caviar eaters. Nowadays, this top-down sentiment is similar to a decked-out Mercedes Benz or a multi-million-dollar condo in SoHo. In this sense, ‘white’ was seen as fashionable liberation… to those who could afford it.

So, when Labor Day came around, the elite’s fun in the sun came to an end; September signified a re-entry into the Dickensian society they had left behind in early June. Still unsure if this is a smack in the face to the whole notion of collective action and unionized power on Labor Day. But so is every Labor Day sale, right?

Over time, the emphasis on what the rich was wearing shifted a bit as the progressive politics in the Great Depression gave way to the rise of the suburban-hunting middle class. Now, everybody could wear white! You didn’t have to sit on a trust fund or reap the profitable sweat and tears of child workers in Chicago to buy a white tee or go on vacation. Leisure and Levittown were the Great Equalizers. That doesn’t mean we stopped caring about what the rich wore at all times [insert E! Fashion Police joke from before].

2. The Time of the Season. I don’t like this reason because it doesn’t have an overarching social message like its predecessor but, what the hell, we’re looking for the Truth, not an Aesop fable. I also do not like this reason because it makes no sense at all. Should I tell you what it is? Well…

Since white best reflects heat from the sun, it can be said that white is a symbol of the summer (along with beaches, burning school textbooks, outdoor music festivals, drinking on weeknights, fifteen layers of sweat, A/C, etc.). It’s a light color with light attributes: dark colors are more associated with heavier clothing; hence the white tee and anything and everything made by Hanes. With Labor Day as a mark of summer’s end, that would mean that all of the season’s symbols must go into hibernation as well. Voila… no white after Labor Day. Pea coats look much better in dark colors, anyway.

But what doesn’t make sense is that ‘white’ is the first word that comes to mind when someone mentions the word ‘winter’ to me. Snow, sleet, hail, holiday lights, December, January, February, snowflakes, Santa Claus’s beard, dreidels, white people shopping like maniacs on Black Friday – all of these things happen throughout the winter and have some sort of ‘white’ concentration. If anything, this logic tells us we should all-out embrace white after Labor Day, simply for preparation of what’s to come.

3. Because Fashion Editors Said So. Before the great urban sprawl westward, the people who dictated fashion trends resided in New York – these were the forces behind Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Cosmopolitan, etc. As we all know, the Big Apple’s climate is more or less the same every year, with a hot summer, rainy fall, freezing winter and a refreshing spring to start the cycle back over again. Well, since all the fashion editors lived in New York, they produced magazine layouts to reflect what they dressed in without the rest of the country’s climates in mind. This meant light whites in the summer vanished from the glossy pages once the rain of autumn settled in. And that change in pace usually happens around Labor Day.

With that being said, it can be safe to say that fashion magazines are the true trendsetters, which may or may not be true: I’m no fashion scholar, I’m just someone whose trying to find answers to a question that has transfixed generations. That’s a scary thought, though, especially since I don’t subscribe to any of the magazines I mentioned before. Am I out of the loop, guys?

The answer: yes. The reason: I’m wearing an all-white tuxedo with pants only Seal could match right now.