After Labor Day: OK to Wear White?

Michelle Obama wore winter white at the inaugural balls. (Getty)Michelle Obama wore winter white at the inaugural balls. (Getty)By Claudine Zap

As sure as temperatures cool and leaves start to change color, the question arises: Should the white wardrobe be stored along with bathing suits and sun hats?

Traditionally, in the Northeast, a dress code was clear: The summer whites came out after Memorial Day and went away after Labor Day. Fashion historian Bronwyn Cosgrave remembers how, growing up, "You had this short season to wear white."

But in the age of Lady Gaga, anything seems to go. (We're looking at you, meat dress.) And yet the outdated rule still causes a closet crisis come the end of summer. "Don't wear white after Labor Day" rose 2000% in Yahoo! searches. Fashionistas also looked up "why can't you wear white after labor day" and "no white after labor day" in the last week.

The question spilled onto the Web. Fashion forums were contradictory. One blogger for the retail site Zappos cautioned that white should not be worn "below the waist" after Labor Day.

Another advised against white shoes (although LaJollaMom approved wearing Manolo Blahnik white boots from Neiman Marcus, if you could stomach the $1,695 price tag.)

How did we get stuck in this anti-white rut? The curator for the museum at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM), Kevin Jones, says that it all started with America's high society, who dressed for the season -- the social season.

"If it's summer, you're not in the city, you're at your country home," Jones explained. The popular choice, white cotton clothing, reflected light and kept you cool. Jones adds, "Once the season ended, their garments changed." Back in town for fall, women, who wore long skirts in the dirty city streets, changed their wardrobes to heavier, darker fabrics.

Nice lifestyle if you were part of it. But for the rest of us, and the fashion world, times have changed -- and the rule really doesn't apply. Even the 2004 book "Emily Post's Etiquette, 17th Edition" says it's fine to wear white after Labor Day.

Still not sure? Let Colleen Sherin, senior fashion director for Saks Fifth Avenue, offers some tips. From her office in New York City she assures shoppers, "There are really no rules anymore. It's just about making the look appropriate." Translation: It's not what you wear, it's how you wear it: Sherin suggests winterizing those white jeans from summer with boots, not sandals, and a jacket instead of a tank top.

"It's the way you put it together that makes the look work year-round," she adds. The department store is promoting several looks in "winter white" for the colder months, including a suit and a faux fur coat in the snowy shade.

Cosgrave, the fashion historian, thinks fashion is actually having a "white moment." She argues, "Wearing white is timeless." And therefore seasonless: She points to the stunning white gown worn by first lady Michelle Obama at the inaugural balls in 2009. And Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard rocked a white mermaid dress when she accepted her Academy Award.

But you don't have to be a first lady or a movie star to break the white rule. "Anything that can break up the dominance of black, in my point of view, bring it on," Cosgrave says.