Until a few years ago, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to wear white after Labor Day. When I lived in Kentucky, with its full-spectrum of seasons and September usually giving way to cooler temps, it was easy to comply with this age-old (and some say outdated) fashion edict. Years spent sweltering through seemingly endless sizzling summers in Austin and then Houston — the latter of which rivals New Orleans when it comes to both amazing restaurants and oppressive humidity — and now the Crescent City, have sent me into a yearly mental tug-of-war on the subject.
On the one hand, my inner rebel wants to don a crisp white cotton shirt and beautifully tailored white pants in the fall and winter months simply because it might elicit tsk-tsks from the rule followers. But this other part of me, which I’ve decided is the tradition- and etiquette-obeying Southern part, just can’t seem to muster the devil-may-care attitude to actually do it.
Last Tuesday, the day after Labor Day, it was 88 degrees in New Orleans. In fact, it was in the high 80s and 90s every day last week. I spied a chic woman sauntering out of a shop on Magazine Street clad in a pink button up, strappy heals and a pair of jeans as white as the driven snow. She clearly had attitude and style in spades and understands dressing for the actual weather, not the weather we might have in October. As I write this post, it’s 90 degrees with 57 percent humidity. Yet, my fabulous white linen Michal Kors pants hang in the closet next to the sweetest little seersucker J. Crew pants and I confess, there they likely will stay until next summer. For the record, the absurdity of this does not escape me.
I’m not the only one pondering this particular point. One quick web search on the topic and you’ll quickly learn we are a nation in fashion crisis. The style authorities at Vogue, for example, relish the opportunity to cover themselves in the snowy hue in the “off season,” offering up “A Guide to Wearing White After Labor Day.” But over at Southern Living’s The Daily South blog, they “still get a twitch at the thought,” reminding us to not only pack up the white pants, seersucker and linen, but also those sundresses, strappy sandals, fruity beers, pastel lip gloss and rosé. I’m happy to report that my inner rebel is going to ignore those last four, without hesitation. (Note: Our own New Orleans Magazine editor, Errol Laborde took on the seersucker and linen rule in his Streetcar column in 2012.
An even weightier argument can be made if one knows the history behind the decree. In a blurb that ran in Time in 2011, a writer explored the classist roots of the “no white after Labor Day” imperative:
“Historians think this maxim stems from class divisions at the turn of the century when lightweight clothes were a symbol of the leisure classes. Back then, Labor Day marked the time the affluent returned from vacation, packed away the summer clothes and went back to school and work. While there's a practical reason for the rule — white clothes dirty easily thus making them ill-suited for heavy autumn rains and winter slush — those who carried the rule through the decades had a less than practical reason for doing so. Indeed, as the years went by, traditionalists and nouveau riche alike continued to eschew winter whites throughout the 20th century in order to remain acceptable in high society.”
So in a way, wearing white after Labor Day is a way of “sticking it to the man” and making a sartorial statement about politics, class and society. It wouldn’t be the first time a disenfranchised group used fashion to make a point. For example, consider the countless women who retired their corsets, put on pants or burned their bras during each generation’s stand against oppressive patriarchal societal rules and cultural and workplace inequality. I rather like the idea of fighting oppression via attire. Power to the people!
Also worth mentioning from the above referenced piece in Time, is that the ever-revolutionary, business-minded, modern, elegant and iconic Coco Chanel did it. When in doubt about any of life’s decisions great or small, it’s often worthwhile to ask, “What would Coco do?”
As with most quandaries regarding style and etiquette however, I ultimately turn to the Emily Post Institute — the beacon of truth and graciousness. The good news is (and I would like to emphasize that this is a direct quote from the “Everyday Manners” area of the website):
Even with the blessing of the Post family, I’m going to have to take baby steps on this one. It’s hard to abandon such a deeply ingrained cultural custom. But, as one who managed to shift from the American, or Zig-Zag, to the Continental style of wielding a fork and knife at the dinner table, in pursuit of greater efficiency as well as to fulfill my patriotic obligation, I’m sure I can get used to wearing white after Labor Day.
Do or will you wear white now that Labor Day has come and gone? Share your thoughts in the comments.
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