When we talk about rules and traditions, there are old rules, outdated rules, classic rules, indispensable rules, and then there are dumb rules. One of the issues we deal with here on SP is sifting through the dusty pages of etiquette books and pulling out what is relevant to our modern times. Some may disagree (and often do) that everything we cover here is outdated and anachronistic, but those troglodytes are not of concern to us. Admittedly, these pages are often only for the civilized minority and yes, we may preach to our own choir on occasion, (well, most of the time actually) but from time to time we do come across issues that we disagree upon and today we have landed on one such number. In the vein of just-so-you-know, and why-it-matters, let’s tackle one of the perennial pronouncements that declares “No White after Labor Day”. Let us look at where it all began, who adheres to the rule, when you can break it and why it even damn matters.
Originally the No White After Labor Day rule pertained to shoes, and later, by extension, to articles of clothing. The rule was surely borne of class distinction as those in the upper classes would naturally only wear white in the summer at their resorts. It was a matter of changing out the closets and putting away the winter. But as more people began to realize the American dream, they didn’t know all the little rules and sign posts that segregated the blue bloods from the nouveau riche. Our beloved Brooks Brothers used to provide little pamphlets to their customers around the turn of the 20th Century that told the newly rich how to act and dress when visiting England so they would not be embarrassed or intimidated when encountering the British stiff upper lip.
Now remember, before we embark on this any further, let us remind those who have just joined us what we are talking about here on SP. When we talk about manners, etiquette, classic style or what have you, we are generally talking about public behavior, yes, but especially those times when we wish to make a good impression. When we enter the Arenas of Impression, if you will permit me, we want to be confident, correct, and appropriate. So before some Philistine hits the comment button and shouts to go to hell or get real, keep this in mind. It is not when one is sitting around the basement of the fraternity house belching and beer ponging that we are concerned with here. It is when we come upstairs, don a jacket and tie and head out into the bright light of day to meet a date, his or her parents, or a prospective employer. Got it? Good.
One of the reasons this rule is still around, and here at SP we are a strict enforcer, has more to do with temperature and looking appropriate when the seasons don’t dictate what you would wear. Would you wear a tweed jacket in the summer? Remember the line from The Talented Mr. Ripley when the Freddie Miles character says of the Tom Ripley character “Corduroy? In Italy?” Freddie was referring to the Italy of the vacationing upper classes and that was the Summer Resort Italy. Who indeed would wear a corduroy jacket on the Italian coast in August? The reason the American South embraces this seemingly arcane and silly rule is simple. The weather. The temperature in New York City dictates that a man wears heavier clothing as the mercury drops. Simple common sense. But in the warmer climates, this is not the case. It can remain 80 degrees well into December in some places and heat flashes can occur in January and February as well.
Hence, the rule: No white after Labor Day and before Easter. No velvet before Thanksgiving or after Valentine’s Day. It just looks weird to see someone wearing white pants, or even light-colored khakis in January. The same goes for fabrics. You should refrain from wearing light cotton sweaters or linen pants in the winter unless you are on a tropical island or in Southern California. Just as you wouldn’t wear a heavy wool sweater in the summer, it looks off and inappropriate.
I once attended a party at the Hollywood Roosevelt in the month of February and was surprised to see Vogue magazine’s resident dandy Hamish Bowles sporting a seersucker suit while I was in a velvet jacket and jeans. As a Brit (and New Yorker) he was making a sarcastic sartorial statement. To his thinking, Los Angeles is a resort town in February and one would appropriately wear resort clothing. I thought it was hilarious and told him so.
So to all those who think they are being rebels by not adhering to some old rule, well, this one has a reason. Now you know so don’t say you weren’t warned. If you unknowingly saunter into an event wearing clothes out of season, people will judge you, SP won’t, but some people will. I just want you to be in the game. As with all of the rules and traditions discussed in these pages, it is not done for any class distinction or exclusive nonsense. It is simply to provide the tools for success, whether it is social, business or romantic. The more you know the farther you’ll go. So get going.