For what it’s worth, we think you can wear white whenever you want to, but if you’re interested in adhering to societal norms, we’re here to help.
So where did the rule, “You can’t wear white after Labor Day” originate? Intuitively, the rule makes sense because white is a breezy summer color that feels less relevant in, say, autumn. But is that all that’s at play here?
First, there’s the very practical explanation: white is a cooler color to wear, making it summer-appropriate. There’s a reason you don’t wear all-black jumpsuits in August. Plus, in pre-air-condition eras, dressing for the hot weather was especially essential.
“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,” Judith Martin, also known as etiquette columnist Miss Manners, told TIME in 2009. “And white is of a lighter weight.”
This trend of wearing white in the warmer months spread nationwide in the early to mid-20th century.
Yet some historians aren’t sure that the rule has any practical origin at all. At the height of its popularity, the color white signified upper class and refinement. You wore white at summer resorts and society events, while the masses wore drab colors as they labored away.
“By the 1880s, in order to tell who was acceptable and who wasn’t, the women who were already ‘in’ felt it necessary to create dozens of fashion rules that everyone in the know had to follow,” Mental Floss writer Kathy Benjamin theorizes. “That way, if a woman showed up at the opera in a dress that cost more than most Americans made in a year, but it had the wrong sleeve length, other women would know not to give her the time of day.”
Another theory: New York-based magazines such as Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Cosmopolitan featured white fashion spreads in the summer, and then changed pace around Labor Day, when the weather began to cool. The rule then spread throughout America.
We stand with Coco Chanel, who wore chic white suits all year-round.