Wearing White After Labor Day

Sep 7, 2010

There are few fashion “rules” that have permeated American culture like the post-Labor Day ban on white clothing items.  Even my younger brother, whose most expensive clothing items are made of camouflage, knows that you’re not supposed to wear white after Labor Day.  But this rule, like so many of the dictates of the fashionistas who came before me, is horribly antiquated and needs to be chucked in the bin.

Ladies, you can wear white after Labor Day if you wear it with style.  But before we start the how-to portion of this post, we need to indulge in a brief history lesson: How did white clothing after Labor Day become the sartorial equivalent of serving bacon-wrapped shrimp on Yom Kippur?

In the early part of the 20th Century, the upper crust spent their Summer holidays strolling the boardwalks of America and Europe in glamorous white linen attire.  The light-colored clothing, parasols and wide brimmed hats kept them cool and looked chic. But when the Summer holidays ended, they returned to the city and their wardrobes full of non-white clothing storing their resort wear for the season.  It was considered declasse for the upper classes to wear white after the Summer season had passed.  

When the Eisenhower age reached full bloom, America’s middle class were obsessed with rising above their station.  Pearl necklaces were purchased, fur coats were worn and wearing white after Labor Day became totally verboten.  Suddenly, the habit of the wealthy became a social norm.

But it’s the 21st Century, we don’t have to follow these rules anymore.  If you’re willing to dedicate a little time to wearing white right (say that five times fast), you can wear white after Labor Day.  Here are a tips for wearing white that won’t get you banned from the Country Club.

First, no white shoes, ever.  That happens to be one of the antiquated fashion rules that I actually believe.  The simple fact of the matter is that white draws the light and therefore, the eye.  And who wants people looking at their feet?

Second, don’t overdose on white it is meant to be worn sparingly.  If you are going to wear white trousers, do not wear a white blouse.  When everyone else is decked out in the dark tones of Fall, a little dab of white is plenty.

If you’re not ready to surrender your white jeans quite yet, look to Zoe Saldana for inspiration.  Here she pairs white skinnies with several darker pieces to build an outfit that utilizes white pants but is still cold-weather appropriate.

Third, accessorize with white.  Long white bead necklaces, white scarves and white lucite bangles provide contrast when paired with darker pieces.  Stocking up on white accessories is also a great way to clean up at the Labor Day sale.  Oh, and yes, you can carry your white purse after Labor Day.

Fourth, (this is an update based on Twitter) just because you can wear white doesn’t mean you can wear linen, sundresses and other summer weight pieces.  The new rules say that you can wear white pieces if they are seasonally appropriate: white sweaters, denim, wool dresses, coats, etc.  

Fifth, if all else fails wear ivory.  If breaking the bright white rule feels like a fashion felony, there are multiple shades of ivory, cream and winter white that are well within the bounds of good taste and Grandma’s rule book.  So bring a little lightness to your closet using white’s less pure cousins.

Curtsey Coat (Anthropologie, $298)

A few years ago, I bought the J.Crew Lady Day coat in winter white.  And it never ceases to amaze me how many women stop me on street corners to ask where I bought that coat.  In an ocean of black wool, there’s just something feminine and sophisticated about a white winter coat.

Please be aware, however, that if you are going to buy a white coat you need a backup because the white coat will spend as much time at the dry cleaner as it will on your body.

Sometimes rules like the post-Labor Day fatwa against white get stale and you need to toss them out.  Besides fashion forward women never really follow the rules anyway, so why should you?

Tips and Tricks

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  1. Rory says:

    I really needed this post! Not two weeks ago I bought a pair of Michael Kors white jeans (for $18!), and I've been trying to figure out if I can still wear them more than twice. I've never had a pair of jeans fit me so well.

    Also, the way the weather's been going this year it will probably be 90 degrees through October.

  2. Norwegianette says:

    Heh, fatwa. That made me smile.

    Also, Zoe's outfit is gorgeous!

  3. KLo says:

    I love my winter white coat, and I always feel so feminine in it. But Dryel can prevent having it live at the dry cleaner's.

  4. AL says:

    I agree, I love my white wool coat – it makes everything pop a little bit more.

  5. District Cut says:

    bacon-wrapped shrimp. LMBO. I love that.

  6. Marianne says:

    I've been contemplating buying the J Crew Lady Day Coat in white for literally years, because it always ends up on sale. The prospect of frequent dry-cleaning has scared me off so far, But hearing all these rave reviews, I'm sure the temptation will be back this year with a vengeance…

  7. Liebchen says:

    I actually just looked at a couple white skirts in my closet this morning and nixed them because it's post-Labor Day. But maybe tomorrow…

  8. jen says:

    I wear white year-round – and this post is spot-on in its advice for how to pull it off. My favorite winter casual look is white jeans, a colorful sweater and coordinating gloves, hat and boots. So much more cheerful than boring black. And when anyone says anything about it (Mom!) I just tell them its 'winter white'.

  9. ms. josephs says:

    FYI — Yom Kippur is for wearing white — all white.. always and forever.. linen, preferably, flax or cotton, is fine, the simpler the better obviously, long and flowing, is traditional. no leather, shoes either, just fabric, so espadrilles, or some other fabric shoe is appropriate. The more modest the better.

    Also, it's almost 2011 – if Lady Gaga feels the urge to wear meat — and it's a bright sunny day of 90 degrees in san franscisco – gosh darn — I would wear my brightest white and soak up all the vitamin D and a yellow tube top and put on my biggest Jackie Oh sunglasses — but that's just me..

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