An old rule dictates that we shouldn’t wear white after Labor Day. The guidance goes back so far that it’s something your grandparents will likely have been aware of. However, while the dictum is firmly entrenched in American culture, its historic origins appear to be less well-known.
These days, Labor Day traditions tend to revolve around sports, store discounts, alfresco dining and parades. For many people, the holiday provides an excuse to make memories with friends and family. However, its origins are perhaps even more honorable, as it was established to celebrate America’s workers.
But while the political importance of Labor Day might seem less relevant in modern times, the holiday has other facets that have endured. For instance, it’s generally thought of as the unofficial finale for the summer. And with that comes a whole host of extra meanings, which historically includes why people should no longer wear white.
No firm consensus exists regarding who devised the concept of Labor Day. Nonetheless, it’s often said that a U.S. union chief named Peter J. McGuire came up with the idea. In 1881 McGuire established the United Brotherhood of Carpenters. And the following year, he put the idea of a celebration to honor workers to New York’s Central Labor Union.
At that time, lots of Americans worked daily shifts of 12 hours every day of the week. Moreover, many jobs required heavy exertion for meager wages. Workplaces were often hazardous and cruel places as well, and many children were sent to toil in them.
Given the conditions the average U.S. worker endured, then, it’s perhaps easy to see why McGuire thought they should be honored. A date for a celebration was set for September 5, 1882, when 10,000 people marched through the streets of New York. The day was said to have ended in good spirits, as the crowds gathered to picnic in an uptown park.
The gathering in New York is now thought of as the first-ever Labor Day parade. However, as the event was yet to become a national day off, workers who turned up faced the prospect of being disciplined or even fired by their employers. Some of them also carried placards demanding shorter workdays and better wages.
When McGuire picked a day for his momentous Labor Day parade, he’d selected one that fell around the midpoint between the Fourth of July to Thanksgiving. However, as his idea for an annual celebration of workers gained traction, the earliest Monday in September stuck as the date of observance.
As the Labor Day movement broadened in reach, at first it did so state by state. Oregon was the earliest to legally recognize the holiday, doing so in 1887. However, the state marked the occasion on the first Saturday of June. It wasn’t until later in 1887 that the original official September Labor Days were marked.
On the first Monday of September in 1887 Massachusetts, Colorado, New Jersey and New York celebrated their first officially recognized Labor Days. In the Big Apple, the workers’ parade was apparently particularly big. And despite discord regarding the influence of socialist organizations on the event, New York came alive.
According to reports, that first official Labor Day in New York saw taverns, stores and parks filled with people. The New York Times wrote in a contemporary account of the holiday, “The barrooms were never more resplendent. Liquidly, the first legal celebration of Labor Day may go down to history as an unqualified success.”
In the following years, other states passed laws to make Labor Day an official holiday. But it would take some time – and even some bloodshed – for it to become a national holiday. It was in fact the Pullman strike of 1894 that seems to have provided the incentive in this regard. Because following the unrest, Labor Day was created in what was seen as an attempt by the government to appease workers.
The Pullman strike was called after the Pullman Palace Car Company cut its employees’ pay but didn’t reduce rental charges for the company-owned residences in which they lived. Staff were understandably annoyed, but when they came to protest, they were dismissed. Consequently, their colleagues went on strike alongside employees from the American Railway Union.
The industrial action of the Pullman strike also sparked wildcat walkouts. In all, tens of thousands of employees eventually downed tools. As a result, rail traffic throughout the Midwest almost entirely stopped. However, as tensions grew, the authorities repeatedly fired upon the protestors.
And, as we’ve heard, it was in the midst of the Pullman strike crisis that Labor Day became a national holiday. President Grover Cleveland passed the legislation in June 1894, although some observers believe he did so for his own gain. New York’s Queens College history professor Joshua B. Freeman is one example. In 2018 he told The New York Times, “There were many political advantages at that moment to provide recognition for Labor Day.”
One benefit of establishing a new Labor Day national holiday was that such a celebration would take the focus off May Day. Since 1884 the labor movement had been using May 1 as a day of industrial action to demand reduced working hours. So, over the years, the date became identified with the socialist movement.
Another reason that some Americans were skeptical about celebrating May Day was down to the events of the Haymarket affair, which occurred in May 1886. It was then that an explosive device was detonated during a Chicago protest demanding reduced working hours. In response to the blast, the authorities turned their guns on the crowd. And during the chaos, both protesters and police lost their lives.
The Haymarket affair was reported all across the planet. Eight protesters were ultimately found guilty as a result of the episode, half of whom lost their lives in the gallows. However, following claims of errors at the court hearings, three of the surviving protestors were later freed.
So, while May Day would come to be celebrated as International Workers’ Day around the world, it has never been recognized in the U.S. Instead, working people are celebrated on Labor Day. And as the labor movement has waned in recent decades, the holiday has become more about spending time with family and friends.
Nowadays, a traditional Labor Day weekend is more likely to be celebrated with a family get-together or discounted shopping. And while some cities still host parades and carnivals, today the cultural significance of the holiday seems to be more associated with its status as the “unofficial end of summer.”
Labor Day is considered to be summer’s finale for a number of reasons. Many people take their summer vacations to coincide with the holiday, for example, after which the school year begins. The weekend also marks the start of a number of fall sports, with the NFL season commencing three days after the national holiday.
Another – perhaps less known – significance of Labor Day is that the holiday marks the conclusion of the hot dog season. While it may come as some surprise to some that we’re not supposed to enjoy our wieners all year round, this is even stated on the website of the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council.
Labor Day is also a date of significance within the fashion world. Traditionally, the holiday was the last day in the calendar upon which it was considered appropriate to wear white. After that, sartorial rules dictated that any clothing in that hue should be packed away, seemingly in favor of darker colors.
The no-white-after-Labor-Day rule appears to have taken form in the early 20th century. And by the 1950s, the guideline was adopted by the middle classes, who were unbending in their approach to appropriate dress. However, while many felt strongly about the etiquette, as the years have gone by it seems that its origins have been lost.
So, how did ditching your white clothes after Labor Day become a thing? Well, the rule is actually linked to the holiday’s status as the unofficial end of summer. The wearing of white, it would seem, should be reserved for the warmer months only. To do so at any other time of year was once a major fashion faux pas.
For centuries, donning white clothes was one of the only things people could do in a bid to keep cool in the warmer months. Speaking to Time magazine in 2019, etiquette columnist Judith Martin explained, “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… And white is of a lighter weight.”
So, wearing white clothes was seen as a stylish way to keep cool. However, since the fashion agenda was mainly set in temperate cities such as New York, warm patches were usually confined to the summer months. As a result, it was deemed unnecessary to wear light-colored garments all year round.
Charlie Scheips wrote the 2007 book American Fashion. He explained, “All the magazines and tastemakers were centered in big cities, usually in northern climates that had seasons.” So, while the fashion editors favored white to keep them comfortable through summer, the color was impractical in other seasons – particularly when rain was involved.
And if tastemakers in New York were packing away their white clothes at the end of summer, other followers of fashion – no matter where they lived in the U.S. – were expected to do the same. While this explanation sounds quite plausible, though, when it comes to the subtle art of dressing, it seems nothing is really straightforward.
Valerie Steele is the director of New York’s Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. And she seemed to cast doubt over the theory that people were encouraged not to wear white after Labor Day just because the color was impractical in northern winters. She told Time, “Very rarely is there actually a functional reason for a fashion rule.”
Instead, some historians have speculated that the rule about not wearing white after Labor Day has more symbolic origins. That’s because white was the color of choice when well-heeled Americans left the city for prolonged periods during the summer. And some have suggested that the light clothing simply provided a happy change to their dark, everyday wardrobes.
White clothes, it seems, were a tonic to the drab everyday life most working people experienced in urban environments. As Scheips explained to Time, “If you look at any photograph of any city in America in the 1930s, you’ll see people in dark clothes.” And by contrast, light-colored clothing was seen as “a look of leisure” in upmarket destinations.
With Labor Day bringing the U.S. summer to its unofficial conclusion, most vacationers headed home, packed up their white clothes and restocked their wardrobes with heavy, dark garments in time for the colder months to come. Such a sartorial transition was heavily symbolic, marking the end of a carefree summer and the return to the pressures of everyday life.
So for a while, it appeared that people naturally ditched their white clothes after Labor Day. But it wasn’t until the 1950s – and the rise of the middle classes – that it seemed to become a concrete stipulation. At that time, proper etiquette was considered an easy way for the long-standing establishment to distinguish itself from the nouveau riche.
However, Martin didn’t agree that the no-white-after-Labor-Day rule was set up to keep the traditional elites apart from those with new money. “There are always people who want to attribute everything in etiquette to snobbery,” she stated. “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.”
So, it would appear that the origin of the Labor Day rule will remain unclear. In any case, not everyone in the fashion industry has always adhered to the guideline. For instance, even as far back as the 1920s, designer and style icon Coco Chanel wore white no matter the season.
Bronwyn Cosgrave is the writer of The Complete History of Costume & Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day. And she explained of Chanel’s penchant for white clothing, “It was a permanent part of her wardrobe.” The designer hasn’t been the only one to flaunt the Labor Day rule, either.
Some memorable fashion moments from recent times include Marion Cotillard receiving her Oscar in 2008 while wearing an off-white gown. Moreover, Michelle Obama chose to don the color at her partner’s presidential ball in January 2009. With that in mind, it would seem that some rules are indeed made to be broken.
In any case, as the 20th century passed it seemed that fewer and fewer people adhered to the no-white-after-Labor-Day rule anyway. Indeed, the shade has been worn in all seasons for decades. And in 2004 wearing the color all year-round was approved by Emily Post in her influential guide Etiquette.
So, as the Labor Day rule has fallen out of fashion, even the preservers of American style rules have seemingly relaxed their stances. Scheips told Time that he “would never be caught dead wearing a white suit after Labor Day.” However, he stressed that he reserved no judgment for those who do, adding, “You don’t have to be a fascist about it.”