The post–Labour Day moratorium on white clothing and accessories has long ranked among etiquette hard-liners’ most sacred rules. For instance, as punishment for breaking it in the 1994 movie Serial Mom, Patty Hearst’s character was murdered by a punctilious psychopath. But ask your average etiquette expert how that rule came to be, and chances are that even she couldn’t explain it. So why aren’t we supposed to wear white after Labour Day?
One common explanation is practical. For centuries, wearing white in the summer was simply a way to stay cool — like changing your dinner menu or putting slipcovers on the furniture. Not only was there no air-conditioning, but people did not go around in t-shirts and halter tops. They wore what we would now consider fairly formal clothes. And white is of a lighter weight.
But beating the heat became fashionable in the early to mid-20th century. All the magazines and tastemakers were centred in big cities, usually in northern climates that had seasons. In the hot summer months, white clothing kept New York fashion editors cool. But facing, say, heavy fall rain, they might not have been inclined to risk sullying white ensembles with mud — and that sensibility was reflected in the glossy pages of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, which set the tone for the country.
This is all sound logic, but that’s exactly why it may be wrong. Very rarely is there actually a functional reason for a fashion rule.
Instead, other historians speculate, the origin of the no-white-after–Labour Day rule may be symbolic. In the early 20th century, white was the uniform of choice for Americans well-to-do enough to decamp from their city digs to warmer climes for months at a time: light summer clothing provided a pleasing contrast to drabber urban life. If you look at any photograph of any city in America in the 1930s, you’ll see people in dark clothes. By contrast, the white linen suits and Panama hats at snooty resorts were “a look of leisure.”
Labour Day, celebrated on the first Monday of September, marked the traditional end of summer; the well-heeled vacationers would stow their summer duds and dust off their heavier, darker-coloured fall clothing.
By the 1950s, as the middle class expanded, the custom had calcified into a hard-and-fast rule. 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.
Some etiquette buffs don’t buy this explanation, however. There are always people who want to attribute everything in etiquette to snobbery. There were many little rules that people did dream up in order to annoy those from whom they wished to disassociate themselves.
Whatever its origin, the Labour Day rule is perennially met with resistance from high-fashion quarters. As far back as the 1920s, Coco Chanel made white a year-round staple. It was a permanent part of her wardrobe. Fashion rules are meant to be broken by those who can pull it off, and white looks really fresh when people aren’t expecting it.
Much to the chagrin of sartorial purists, that skepticism of the Labour Day law has seeped into mainstream America. From 1960s counterculture to the present day — where would-be fashionistas get as many ideas from blogs and friends as from magazines and Fashion Week — more people than ever are breaking the rule. Even the 2004 manners bible, Emily Post’s Etiquette, 17th Edition, gives the go-ahead for wearing white after Labour Day.
No matter what side of the fence you sit on, it doesn’t seem proper for The Sutton Place Hotels to decide whether white can be worn after Labour Day. But… Coco Chanel famously wore white whenever she wanted, so why shouldn’t we?