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Equal whites

By Mike Ruffin

We all know that summer hasn’t actually ended—that won’t happen until September 22, better known among those who need to know as the day before the day before my sixty-third (!) birthday. But many of us ignore that pesky calendrical fact and think of Labor Day as the last day of summer.

Labor Day is also the last day of the year that many of us will wear any white clothing until the unofficial beginning of summer (which will actually fall on June 21 in 2022) on Memorial Day. I imagine that the main reason those of us who follow the “wear no white after Labor Day” custom do so is because—in the words of the prophet Carly Simon—that’s the way we’ve always heard it should be. Our mothers and grandmothers handed the rule off to us, and we’ve taken the “no white clothes after Labor Day” baton and run with it.

But have you ever wondered why the custom that became a rule exists?

There may be practical reasons. Back in the days before air conditioning, it made sense to wear lighter (in both color and weight) clothes in warmer months and darker, heavier garments in colder ones. It also made sense to wear dark clothes in colder seasons because of the presence of more dirt and greater dampness. It was easier to keep lighter clothes looking nice and clean in the summertime than it was in the fall and winter months.

There may be another reason for the No White After Labor Day rule. This reason isn’t practical—unless you are among those who think they have the right to make sure that poor folks remember their place, which is of course the place you’ve decided they should have.  

According to the article “The History Behind the ‘No White After Labor Day’ Rule” by Emily VanSchmus on the Better Homes and Gardens website (July 19, 2021), the custom began in the late 1800s as a way to differentiate between people of upper and lower classes. People with money could leave the cities when summer was over to vacation in places with warmer weather where they would continue to wear white. People who weren’t wealthy had to remain in the city. People who could afford leisure could wear white on their vacations, but folks who had neither time nor resources to travel should and would switch to dark clothes.

According to VanSchmus (and others), that’s the origin of the No White After Labor Day Rule. The custom began as an effort to make clear who were the haves and who were the have nots. It was rooted in class consciousness. It was grounded in an effort to keep people aware of their appropriate—in the eyes of the rich and powerful—place in society.

Well, I say that we common folk are under no obligation to stay where other people say we belong. I say we should rise up, throw off the clothing restraints that the rich and powerful have long used to keep us down, and declare our fashion independence. I say we stand as one and shout, “We’re real tired of your rules and we aren’t going to follow them anymore.” I say we wear whatever colors we want to wear whenever we want to wear them.

I know, I know—there are much more serious socio-economic issues we need to deal with. But a small start is a start nonetheless.

So I say, wear your white clothes and shoes in the dead of winter—or any other time.

To misquote the prophet John Lennon, “Power to the people! White on!”

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