Why Can't You Wear White After Labor Day? A History

The classist, unconvincing history of the outdated fashion rule.

a woman wearing a white outfit
(Image credit: Christian Vierig)

Before you know it, you'll be packing away your sundresses and summer sandals to make room for chunky sweaters and over-the-knee boots. But there's one fashion category I always hesitate to retire: The all-white outfits and cream-colored pieces I've accumulated over the years. The age-old question―"Can I wear white after Labor Day?"—has long haunted fashion lovers everywhere. Many people (including me) have have feared wearing their favorite white pieces during September and beyond in order to prevent censure and condemnation, but is this necessary? Can you, in fact, wear white after Labor Day without committing a fashion crime?

The short answer: Yes! In fact, the story behind this arbitrary post-Labor Day dress code is not only unconvincing, but incredibly classist. Read on to learn why you should give your white jeans a chance to bask in the autumn sun.

The History of the White After Labor Day "Rule"

During the late 19th century, society ladies were engaged in an invisible battle with the nouveau riche, a term used to describe people who'd recently become rich rather than having benefitted from generations of wealth. One of the subtle jabs that the old money crowd used to distinguish themselves from the nouveau riche was to make wearing white after Labor Day a fashion faux pas.

"It [was] insiders trying to keep other people out," says Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, in an interview with Time, "and outsiders trying to climb in by proving they know the rules."

French fashion designer Coco Chanel wearing her gown

Coco Chanel in 1969, sticking it to those 19th-century mean girls.

(Image credit: Roland Schoor)

The Vacation Theory

Some etiquette authorities like Judith Martin rebuff this class theory, with Martin telling Time, "There are always people who want to attribute everything in etiquette to snobbery. There were many little rules that people did dream up in order to annoy those from whom they wished to disassociate themselves. But I do not believe this is one of them."

The true reason could be much simpler. After Labor Day—the first Monday of September—became a federal holiday in 1894, it came to symbolically mark the end of summer. Vacationers packed away their breezy white dresses and linen button-downs in favor of darker-hued clothing, like navy suits and gray sweaters. "There used to be a much clearer sense of re-entry," explained Steele to Time. "You're back in the city, back at school, back doing whatever you're doing in the fall—and so you have a new wardrobe."

Plus, for those who had money and could leave the city during warmer months, white was considered vacation attire, with city dwellers more often sticking to dark colors. White linen suits and Panama hats were considered the "look of leisure."

But regardless of how this subjective rule really came about, no modern fashion enthusiast should feel the need to follow it. Wear whatever color you want! Life is too short―and fashion is too fun―to care about what other people think.

White Clothes to Wear After Labor Day

Gabrielle Ulubay
Beauty Writer

Gabrielle Ulubay is a Beauty Writer at Marie Claire. She has also written about sexual wellness, politics, culture, and fashion at Marie Claire and at publications including The New York Times, HuffPost Personal, Bustle, Alma, Muskrat Magazine, O'Bheal, and elsewhere. Her personal essay in The New York Times' Modern Love column kickstarted her professional writing career in 2018, and that piece has since been printed in the 2019 revised edition of the Modern Love book. Having studied history, international relations, and film, she has made films on politics and gender equity in addition to writing about cinema for Film Ireland, University College Cork, and on her personal blog, gabrielleulubay.medium.com. Before working with Marie Claire, Gabrielle worked in local government, higher education, and sales, and has resided in four countries and counting. She has worked extensively in the e-commerce and sales spaces since 2020, and spent two years at Drizly, where she developed an expertise in finding the best, highest quality goods and experiences money can buy.

Deeply political, she believes that skincare, haircare, and sexual wellness are central tenets to one's overall health and fights for them to be taken seriously, especially for people of color. She also loves studying makeup as a means of artistic expression, drawing on her experience as an artist in her analysis of beauty trends. She's based in New York City, where she can be found watching movies or running her art business when she isn't writing. Find her on Twitter at @GabrielleUlubay or on Instagram at @gabrielle.ulubay, or follow her art at @suburban.graffiti.art