This piece was inspired by an episode of The Cooler, KQED’s weekly pop culture podcast. Give it a listen!
Every year around this time, I struggle to face the bitter reality that summer is coming to an end. I mentally prepare to say goodbye to all my espadrilles and sundresses (apparel is my language of mourning, what can I say?). And all my crisp white pieces too (cue the Az Yetalbum cover). For me, this ritual has always been based more on habit than anything else. It’s tradition, but why? Sure, the coming months may be soggy and cold, but shouldn’t we all be able to wear what we damn well please without shame raining down from the fashion gods? I set out to explore this question and discovered that this white rule may have less to do with fashion and more to do with etiquette. I’ll explain…
As fashion legend has it, white is only to be worn between Memorial Day and Labor Day. After that, it’s tradition to tuck away your whites for warmer hues. Although there is no definitive answer for how this tradition came to be, many believe the custom is related to three major ideas; practicality, taste-making and good ole fashion classism.
In ye olden days, it was common to use coal-burning furnaces. So, if you’re planning to shovel coal, it makes sense that you’d want to avoid looking like you’re headed to Diddy’s annual white party in the Hamptons. In addition, if you live in places that have actual seasons (we native Californians have little tangible concept of autumn), mucking up your snow white trousers in actual snow isn't a brilliant idea. So it's understandable that the strategy might be to gravitate toward a darker palette during the winter and reserve white for months when you need to keep cool in the brutal heat and humidity.
The Tastemaker Theory
With the advent of YouTube, Instagram, and other social media platforms, we recognize that pretty much anyone anywhere can be a style icon. However, many of us are old enough to remember the days when glossy magazines like Vogue and Harper's Bazaar were the beginning and end of trendsetting. In some circles, they still are. Many major fashion publications were rooted in New York, thus their fashion spreads were based on the environments in which they existed. Is it raining cats and dogs? I’ll take a thigh high boot, please. Is that snow I see? Pass the tweed overcoat and cashmere elbow glove. Winter gala to attend? Darling, you must wear your mink (faux, of course. Don’t tweet me, bro). In short, the theory here is that fashion minded people were peer-pressured into shelving their white apparel. But there were a few renegades.
Despite her horrific associations, designer Coco Chanel was celebrated for making white a staple of her collection year-round. It's fair to note that the fashion industry has become increasingly relaxed around the white rule in recent years, with major fashion magazines like Vogue providing sage advice on how to pull off the pale shade after Labor Day. Also, it would be near negligent not to mention that the quintessential prim-and-proper polite pioneer herself, Emily Post, relaxed her stance around this rigid rule. See Emily Post’s Etiquette, 17th Edition, if you need proof.
Many track the origins of etiquette back to French royal courts in the 1600s and 1700s, although there is evidence that the oldest known etiquette book was written in 2400 B.C. by Ptahhotep, which incidentally doesn’t sound like a French name to me. I’ll leave you to some critical thinking around that. Nevertheless, the concept of good manners has been around for quite some time. In fact, it's said that before utensils were a thing, individuals of breeding would eat using only three fingers, extending both the ring and pinkie fingers to denote status. Basically: It’s likely neither one of us has bathed in days, but you see this raised pinkie? I rest my case. For eons, the intimate knowledge of customs has been used to weed out those deemed undesirable and strengthen bonds amongst the chosen few.
Enter America, land of the immigrant and nouveau riche. It seems by the late 1800 and early 1900s, snobbery was all the rage in some circles and “wives of the super-rich ruled high society with an iron fist after the Civil War.” With the influx of new money and immigrants, it became harder to decipher the haves from the just acquireds. What's a wealthy wife interested in protecting the homogeny of her social circle to do? Lean on etiquette, that's what! Brace for the avalanche of debutante guidelines, which include but are not limited to, knowledge of the proper salad and dessert fork, the intricacies of glove etiquette, appropriate sleeve length and so forth.
By now, I'm sure you've deduced that our much-discussed white rule was common knowledge amongst those who would consider themselves upper class. In circles with abundant wealth, multi-tiered wardrobes catered for specific seasons and occasions were a must.
Let’s wrap things up with this quote by Bronwyn Cosgrave, author of The Complete History of Costume & Fashion: From Ancient Egyptto the Present Day who told TIME Magazine: “Fashion rules are meant to be broken by those who can pull it off.” So rest assured, you can wear white shoes after Labor Day without catching this severe fade: