It is a truth universally acknowledged that you can’t wear white after Labor Day. But why? It’s a fashion rule that has been parroted by grandmothers, general interest magazines, and teenage mean girls for generations, as if it’s a statute that society has always abided by. Break it and—the horror!—you’re committing a sartorial sin.
As with so many American fashion edicts, though, its origins can be traced back to the elite of the Gilded Age. Every summer, they would decamp from the crowded, sweltering city to cooler places by the ocean, such as Newport or Southampton, for the entire season. Packed in their trunks were wardrobes of white.
It was a practical choice, above all: back then, it was wholly inappropriate to wear tank tops, shorts, or mini-dresses even as the temperatures soared. White, which reflects light, keeps the wearer cooler. Plus, linen—a popular, breathable fabric especially for suits—usually came in neutral tones.
The emergence of sportswear also played a role: in the early 19th century, tennis became a popular co-ed sport among the moneyed classes. Wearing a white uniform had been a tradition since 16th-century France, where the nobles wore it playing indoor jeu de paume. In fact, in 1877, London’s Wimbledon Club made it a strict requirement for their players. Why? White masks sweat—which, at the time, was considered extremely unseemly to show, especially in the presence of the opposite sex. For those reasons, it also became popular with leisure sports like cycling: many women adopted a shirtwaist ensemble that involved white—or a long skirt paired with a feminine blouse—which allowed for easier movement, as exemplified most memorably in John Singer Sargent’s 1897 portrait of Gilded Age socialite Edith Minturn.
Then, there was a class element at play: white didn’t show sweat, but it did show dirt. To wear white was a subtle way of showing you weren’t doing the landscaping, cooking, or cleaning—or, well, manual labor at all.
When fall came, the wealthy packed their whites away. They didn’t need to wear them: the temperatures had cooled, the tennis tournaments had finished. But they also couldn’t wear them. Back then, the New York City streets were made of dirt, covered in horse excrement, as well as rotting garbage. If you walked out in the color, it would soon be covered in grime of mysterious origins. “White, while perfect for the country, it is, because it soils so easily, impossible for town wear,” Vogue wrote in 1925.