The first leaves are falling from the trees, the kids are back in school, and the sun is setting earlier. Once upon a time, the arrival of Labor Day signaled it was time to stop wearing white. Remember that old chestnut? “Only wear white between Memorial Day and Labor Day.”
It brings to mind Emily Post, but the origins go back to the 19th century, when the über-elite used fashion to both secure what they saw as their rightful place in high society and distinguish them from newly wealthy families who didn’t—or couldn’t—know better. “These nouveau-riche folks were often unaware of the standards of high society, so they were given specific codified rules to follow in order to fit in,” says Dr. Valerie Steele, Director and Chief Curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
Think about it: dirt and stains show up on white clothing easily. White attire represented a leisure class with refined behavior and a staff of underlings who could keep sumptuous clothing bright and clean in the days before Tide to Go pens.
Labor Day became a federal holiday in 1894, at the height of the Gilded Age. Families of Gilded Age tycoons donned white while summering in the exclusive resort towns such as Newport, Rhode Island and Saratoga, New York. Edith Wharton fans can geek out to the breathtaking costumes of Gillian Anderson in the movie adaptation of The House of Mirth and Winona Ryder in The Age of Innocence, as well as the BBC miniseries The Buccaneers (all feature plots with significant action set in the all-important summer resort social season.)
The Gilded Age had rigid, constantly evolving conventions about what was and wasn’t proper, and not only in personal attire, but in personal interaction. “Gilded Age social events were elaborate stages on which costumed and bejeweled players enacted very public dramas. Wealthy women in their finery were under constant scrutiny by those around them,” write Donald Albrecht and Jeannine Falino in Gilded Age New York: Design, Fashion, and Society. Though they didn’t have to slave away in unsafe sweatshops, elite New York society women were slaves to conformity.
Fast-forward a hundred or so years, and here we are now. As far as we’re concerned, you can and should wear white whenever you feel like it! But do it with a flair that fits the season. Frosty white jeans are great for fall. Breezy linen and seersucker sundresses? Unless you live in Bali, not so much.
White accessories are a fine way to infuse clean, crisp looks with the darker colors we gravitate toward once there’s a hint of chill in the air. You can’t go wrong with black and white, or a cozy white sweater to turn layering from dreary to darling. White statement chains and cuffs really pop against a dark top, and white leather wrap bracelets dress up casual outfits and keep blazers and suits from looking too stuffy.
We have a trove of Edwardian-inspired baubles, too, resplendent with faux crystals and white pearls. And you can flaunt them because you simply like them, not because you’re coveting a spot in the upcoming Social Register. While it’s fun to pine for the glamor and formality of times past, it’s even better to celebrate the freedom we have today to express ourselves in what we choose to wear, when we choose to wear it. (And you thought black was the only color for rebels!) White never goes out of style, no matter which side of Labor Day the calendar falls on.
By Sara Bir