The history behind the rule of not wearing white after Labor Day

When it comes to fashion, rules are meant to be broken

French fashion designer Coco Chanel (1883 - 1971) in her apartment at the Hotel Ritz Paris, circa 1960. (Photo by FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images) (FPG, 2009 Getty Images)

Do you have grandparents or parents who swear not to wear white after Labor Day weekend until Memorial Day weekend?

Well, the fashion rule that seems to be fading holds some history.

Local 4′s style editor Jon Jordan and Wayne State University’s lecturer of fashion design and merchandising Monika Sinclair weighed in on the history of the fashion rule of not wearing white after Labor Day -- here’s what we learned.

The rule is connected to social class in New York City, and started in the 19th century, according to both fashion professionals. New York City didn’t have paved roads like it does now, and it was, like other major cities, extremely dusty. Because of the dust, and if you were a laborer and were from a blue-collar family, any white clothes worn would get extremely dirty.

It’s also worth noting that wearing darker clothing also kept people warmer during the cooler months.

“It was a societal rule that kind of dictated that if you were a person of means and of importance, that you specified your wardrobe in that way,” Jordan said.

Those who wore white and linen in the summer wore them for many reasons, but those of a higher class, especially in New York City, could afford to wear white since they were not doing labor that would get their clothes dirty.

“There was this sort of elitist aspect to wearing white. If you could wear white, it often was an indication that you had means and that you didn’t do manual labor and you could afford a vacation.”

But who exactly started this rule and established it? Sinclair said it was the wealthy women who came from old money who wanted to separate themselves from society.

“They were the ones that could afford to leave the city and go on vacation and put away their dusty clothes from the city while wearing lightweight white clothing. White was seen like a leisurely type of apparel back then. It would be considered formal wear, because they were used to being dressed in these corsets and big gowns, but, essentially, they were white,” said Sinclair. “So if you had white clothing, you had money. You could afford to go on summer vacations and wear white and stay cool.”

While old money families seemed to follow this rule, Sinclair said that those of new money started to bend the rules and wear white after Labor Day. Though the “rule” has been around for over two centuries now, there were designers who started breaking the rule in the 1920s.

Both Jordan and Sinclair mention the fashion designer pioneer Coco Chanel as being one of the first to go against the grain of wearing white after Labor Day.

“She was kind of a bada--, I guess you could say,” Sinclair said. “She said, ‘Screw this rule. I am going to make a white suit after the Labor Day holiday,’ even though it’s a U.S. holiday, but she was well aware of the rule.”

And that suit is one of Chanel’s staple pieces that many fashion designers know and respect.

PARIS, FRANCE - JANUARY 22: Atmosphere : Giant Statue of the Famous Coco Chanel's Jacket at the Chanel - Paris Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2008 - Front Row at The Grand Palais on January 22,2008 in Paris, France. (Photo by Foc Kan/WireImage) (2007 WireImage)

The French designer went on to design iconic white button-down tops, blouses, suits and many more pieces. Jordan explained that Chanel really streamlined the way that women wore clothing in the 20s.

Before the French designer, clothes were complicated for women and also very restricting with bustles, corsets and undergarments. Chanel’s designs incorporated comfort and simple lines, making clothes less complex than what was the norm.

“Nobody had done things the way that Coco Chanel did prior to her,” Jordan said. “She was an early advocate of wearing white year-round and kind of bucking that trend.”

Fashion designer Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, center, chats with dancer Serge Lifar, left, and Jacques Chazot n Paris, France, July 20, 1970. They are shown during a buffet party given by Chanel after showing her designs at her fall and winter opening. The party is the first Chanel has given on such an occasion. (AP Photo) (Associated Press)

While Chanel was breaking the societal fashion rule during the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression eras, some still followed the “no white after Labor Day” rule. Fast forward to the 1950s, and fashion magazines tried to reinstate the rule for all once again.

“In the 1950s, fashion editors in New York City who worked for Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, you know, well-respected fashion magazines, they were often featured in the articles regarding their point of view of style,” Sinclair said. “These women in the 1950s decided to kind of reinstate this rule and began to put away their whites after Labor Day and wear colors and heavier fabrics. Their opinion would be featured in these magazines, and these magazines would be read by other women across America. It then became more mainstream again.”

Fashion editors tried to reinstate the fashion rule in the 50s, but many people were not buying it. Jordan explains that household appliances were more accessible during this time, making it easier for the middle and lower class to clean their light-colored clothing.

“The 50s were, in one sense, sort of the advent of washing machines. That’s when household appliances started to become the norm and affordable,” Jordan said. “People started to get washing machines ... so people were able to maintain white clothes.”

Jordan also mentions that during the McCarthy era, there was a lot of unrest in society, so when the 60s rolled around, people started to reject rules and regulations even more. From the 60s to now, many people have ditched the “not wearing white after Labor Day” rule.

Wearing white after Labor Day in the 21st century

Obviously, the rule isn’t a big deal anymore, but some people still refuse to wear white between Labor Day and Memorial Day.

Sinclair mentions that Fashion Week in New York City is coming up this month, and a lot of white will be shown since the summer 2023 collections will be displayed and will drop in January.

As for Sinclair, she lives in her white sneakers all year round.

“I lived in New York City and worked in the fashion industry for quite a long time -- 15 years -- and produced many shows, and white always made its way into whatever show fashion show I was working on and did not depend on the season at all,” Sinclair said. “Some of the designers that I worked with are Yohji Yamamoto and Jeremy Scott, and Rick Owens ... I mean, Rick Owens and Yoshi Yamamoto are known for their black and white pieces. So those are iconic to their aesthetic. White always snuck its way into every single season.”

For Jordan, he claims to incorporate his white jeans in the cooler months whenever he can.

“I have a couple of pairs of white denim jeans, and so they’re not lightweight. These are heavy traditional denim and they don’t have any sort of stretch in them, there’s no synthetic component. I love to wear those white jeans with big, chunky, oversized, black turtlenecks,” Jordan said.

Fashion trends always come back around -- will wearing white after Labor Day be a fashion issue again?

While there is the theory of historical continuity in the question, Sinclair said that not wearing white after Labor Day could be a dying rule.

The theory of historical continuity means that fashion trends somewhat repeat themselves every 20 years or so. Similar to how the Y2K fashion trend has returned, with low-rise jeans, baggy cargo pants and crop tops in style once again.

“As we move through time, that older generation is fading out, the ones who really had this rule instilled in them ... and there’s a good possibility it may be forgotten about,” Sinclair said. “At one time, there was a rule that women couldn’t wear pants. It (was) kind of like the unspoken rule, right? Back in the early 1900s ... I laugh at that. That’s weird, right? And maybe this ‘no white after Labor Day’ rule will kind of follow the same path.”

About the Authors:

Elizabeth Washington is a Digital News Editor and has been with Local 4 News since April 2022.

Jon is proud to be an employee of WDIV Local 4 for over thirty years. He was born in Royal Oak, Michigan and majored in Art at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.