Can You Wear White After Labor Day? What You Need to Know

You’ve probably heard that wearing white after Labor Day is an etiquette faux pas. But if you stop and think about it, the rule is pretty perplexing. You can wear most other colors any time of the year, so why should white be any different? And who made the rule that you can’t wear white after Labor Day, anyway?

Below, get the inside scoop on where this rule comes from, what it means, and whether you really have to follow it.

In the 1900s to 1920s, people wore ‘summer clothes,’ which meant no white after Labor Day

Four women watch the Schneider Trophy air race

Four women on the beach watch the Schneider Trophy air race. | Topical Press Agency/ Getty Images

The Emily Post Institute reports that in the 1900s through the 1920s, “society flocked en masse” from city homes to seaside cottages and mountain cabins. When packing up for the summer, people left their city clothes behind. And they switched to lighter — and whiter — summer clothes. When they returned to the city in the fall, after Labor Day, they put their summer clothes away and returned to their formal city clothes once more. And if you look at old photos, you’ll notice that in the city, most people wore dark clothes.

The Emily Post Institute notes, “It was an age when there was a dress code for practically every occasion, and the signal to mark the change between summer resort clothes and clothing worn for the rest of the year was encapsulated in the dictum, ‘No white after Labor Day.'” When people returned to the city in the fall — to work or to go to school — the summer clothes would get put away. It was just the proper thing to do.

By the 1950s, even women’s magazines enforced the rule

The rule against wearing white after Labor Day may have served another purpose in 20th-century American society, too. Mental Floss notes that Labor Day became a federal holiday in 1894, at the height of an age when “women who were already ‘in’ felt it necessary to create dozens of fashion rules that everyone in the know had to follow.” Society adopted Labor Day Not as the natural endpoint of summer and summer fashion. So not wearing white after Labor Day was one of the rules you had to follow to be considered appropriately attired by the upper echelons of high society.

Mental Floss points out that not everybody followed the rules, including some socialites. “But even though the rule was originally enforced by only a few hundred women, over the decades, it trickled down to everyone else. By the 1950s, women’s magazines made it clear to middle-class America: White clothing came out on Memorial Day and went away on Labor Day.”

Everybody knew the rule — which defeated the purpose

Time notes that by the time the no-white-after-Labor-Day dictum became a hard-and-fast rule in the 1950s, everybody knew about it. And that sort of defeated the purpose of having the rule in the first place. “Along with a slew of commands about salad plates and fish forks, the no-whites dictum provided old-money élites with a bulwark against the upwardly mobile. But such mores were propagated by aspirants too: those savvy enough to learn all the rules increased their odds of earning a ticket into polite society.”

The rule might have originally set apart the Americans wealthy enough to decamp from their city residences to spend summers at resorts or in resort towns. (Though not every etiquette buys that explanation, Time notes.) But once everybody knew about it, it could no longer serve that function.

Now everyone knows the rule, but nobody has to follow it

Today, everybody’s heard the rule against wearing white after Labor Day. But nobody has to follow it. The Emily Post Institute notes that today, “Of course you can wear white after Labor Day, and it makes perfect sense to do so in climates where September’s temperatures are hardly fall-like. It’s more about fabric choice today than color.” In other words, you might not want to wear white linen in the middle of winter. But white wool or cashmere would certainly be appropriate.

Even Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP — which serves as a Bible for a different kind of high society than the one that gave rise to Emily Post — reports on the seasonless versatility of the color white, “That ‘rule’ that states you can’t wear it after Labor Day? It’s meant to be broken.”

Read more: You Really Need to Ignore These 7 Outdated Fashion Rules

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