All About America

Why Americans Don't Wear White After Labor Day

By Kelly Jean Kelly
August 30, 2019 02:41 PM

This Monday is Labor Day in the United States — a holiday linked to workers’ rights and wearing white.

That may sound strange, but it is true. Many Americans put away their white clothes on Labor Day and do not wear them again until the following May, after Memorial Day.

One reason for the clothing custom relates to the season. In the United States, the months between June and September are summer.

The weather is usually hot, including in Northeast cities like Boston, Massachusetts and New York, New York. Many people there historically wore light-colored clothing in the summertime to keep cool.

First lady Melania Trump ignored the rule against wearing white after Labor Day by appearing in a white pantsuit at the 2018 State of the Union address in Washington, Jan. 30, 2018.

Judith Martin is an expert on manners – in other words, on how to behave politely. She spoke to Time Magazine about the history of wearing white in the summer.

She said that Americans in the 1800s and early 1900s wore formal clothes all year long. Wearing white clothes in the summertime may have felt more comfortable because “white is of a lighter weight,” Martin said.

Then, in about the 1930s, wearing white clothes in the summertime became fashionable, too. That is because some wealthy Americans in Northeast cities went on vacation for weeks or months in the summer. They stayed in costly hotels or summer houses. The white clothes they wore there became linked to ease, beauty and money.

But at the end of summer, around Labor Day, they put those white clothes away and returned to their lives in the city – as well as to their darker, heavier clothes. In time, not wearing white after Labor Day became a bit of a fashion rule. Following it showed that you were wealthy — or at least that you knew how to act like you were.

Today’s fashion magazines, however, advise readers to ignore the rule. They point to Coco Chanel, Kim Kardashian and Michelle Obama, who have appeared in white in all seasons.

But you may want to be careful about wearing white to an American-style Labor Day barbecue. 

The trouble is not fashion – it is ketchup. If it spills, the popular red tomato sauce can ruin a nice set of clothes.

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