Why can’t  I wear white after Labor Day?  Most of us  have asked this question. Ask your average etiquette expert how that rule came to be, and chances are that even she couldn’t explain it. So why aren’t we supposed to wear white after Labor Day?

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One common explanation is practical. For centuries, wearing white in the summer was simply a way to stay cool — like changing your dinner menu or putting slipcovers on the furniture. But, beating the heat became fashionable in the early to mid-20th century.  All the magazines and taste-makers were centered in big cities, usually in northern climates that had seasons.  In the hot summer months, white clothing kept New York fashion editors cool. This sounds logical but that’s exactly why it may be wrong.

Instead, other historians speculate, the origin of the no-white-after–Labor Day rule may be symbolic. In the early 20th century, white was the uniform of choice for Americans well-to-do enough to decamp from their city digs to warmer climes for months at a time: light summer clothing provided a pleasing contrast to drabber urban life.

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Labor Day, celebrated in the U.S. on the first Monday of September, marked the traditional end of summer; the well-heeled vacationers would stow their summer duds and dust off their heavier, darker-colored fall clothing.  Year ago there was a feeling of returning to the grind after  Labor Day. 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.

By the 1950s, as the middle class expanded, the custom had calcified into a hard-and-fast rule. Along with a slew of commands about salad plates and fish forks, the no-whites dictum provided old-money with a marker of class versus classless. But such rules were adopted  by middle class and poor too. It was used  as a marker that they were savvy enough to learn all the rules and  increased their odds of earning a ticket into polite society.

Some etiquette buffs don’t buy this explanation, however.

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Whatever its origin, the Labor Day rule has perennially met with resistance from high-fashion quarters. As far back as the 1920s, Coco Chanel made white a year-round staple. “It was a permanent part of her wardrobe,” says Bronwyn Cosgrave, author of The Complete History of Costume & Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day. The trend is embraced with equal vigor by today’s fashion élites, Cosgrave notes — from Marion Cotillard accepting her 2008 Academy Award in a mermaid-inspired cream dress to Michelle Obama dancing the inaugural balls away in a snowy floor-length gown. Fashion rules are meant to be broken by those who can pull it off, notes Cosgrave, and white “looks really fresh when people aren’t expecting it.”

Much to the chagrin of sartorial purists, that skepticism of the Labor Day law has seeped into mainstream America. From 1960s counterculture to the present day — when would-be fashionistas get as many ideas from blogs and friends as from magazines and Fashion Week — more people than ever are breaking the rule. Even the 2004 manners bible, Emily Post’s Etiquette, 17th Edition, gives the go-ahead for wearing white after Labor Day. Which may explain why some who abide by the custom themselves are now willing to compromise. Scheips, for one, “would never be caught dead wearing a white suit after Labor Day.” But neither does he completely write off those who do. “I’m sure the Queen of England at Christmastime puts on white ermine once in a while. So if it’s good enough for her, it’s good enough for everybody else, right?” he says. “You don’t have to be a fascist about it.”

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