Even though it’s a bit of a joke, every year some fashion magazine or blog brings up the ‘no white after Labour day’ rule. But there never really was a ‘rule’.
Until the 19th century white was an impractical and unaffordable colour to maintain. However, a series of developments in the 19th century changed all that:
Firstly, cotton became much cheaper to buy, thanks to the invention of the cotton gin. While most cotton in the 18th century was printed for outerwear, partly as a way to obscure staining, by the early 1800s, plain white cotton dresses became a high fashion statement. Cleaning methods were also improving during the 19th century, making white an easier colour to keep clean. Peroxide and chlorine bleaches became the ultimate cleaning methods for keeping white clothing snowy white.
Secondly, fashion, which was still entirely European in origin during the 19th century, was adapted for colonial climates. India, Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America were hot and humid, and dark wool suits and dresses were displaced by white wool, linen, and lightweight cotton as more suitable materials for the climate. After Whit Sunday (the 7th Sunday after Easter) on the Christian calendar, it was customary for girls to parade in white dresses – heralding in the unofficial launch of the summer season. White became associated with the summer season.
Thirdly, the middle class was becoming wealthier and more influential during the 19th century, and they had more leisure time. Coal-fueled townhouses and sooty industries made white an impractical colour for most of the year, but for summer holidays in the mountains or seaside, white clothing and ice cream helped to keep everyone cool.
Fourthly, sportswear was a new concept in the late 19th century, but as men and women took up the fashionable sports of tennis, badminton, croquet, and lawn bowling, crisp white clothing was the perfect way to look good, keep cool, and hide sweat. Wimbledon still retains a white-clothing rule for its players.
Labour Day was first observed in 1872 in Canada, and in 1894 in the United States, and the early September date soon became the unofficial end of the summer season. Before global warming, September was also the beginning of cooler weather, harvest, the resumption of school and university classes, and general business as usual.
By the 1950s air conditioning was still a luxury for most households, but it was becoming standard in office buildings. More workers were also buying automobiles and living in leafy suburbs – the seasons began to blur. Winter holidays were becoming more popular as summers became more bearable. It was in this postwar era, when white was no longer primarily a practical choice for beating the heat that the unspoken tradition for wearing white in summer began to break down. Women’s magazines began to suggest white as an inappropriate colour to wear after Labour Day, unless you were a bride. This ‘rule’ was only made up as the tradition dwindled in importance each year until only white shoes were considered inappropriate for wear after Labour Day. Now, that too is no longer a consideration in our age of year-round sandals, sneakers, and flip-flops worn in the office.