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Why We Wear White in the Summer

After Labor Day, you’re supposed to put whites away — but are you really?

Sean “Diddy” Combs and friends at his summer white party in 2007.
Mat Szwajkos/Getty

What’s the color of money? Well, green, probably if you live in America. Or I guess gold if you really only trust the gold standard? So, the color of money can be a lot of colors! One of them is white, though. At least, when it comes to the reason that people wear white shoes and clothing during the summer months.

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That might come as a surprise, because, at first glance, wearing white would just seem to make sense. There’s a popular notion that white reflects heat thus leaving you cooler if you wear white. Now, admittedly, this doesn’t actually work. Your own body emits heat during the summer months, and white fabric just reflects it right back at your skin. If you want to stay cool during summer months, you should really wear black, which will suck up the heat from your skin.

Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Still, wearing white because people think it makes you cooler would certainly make more sense than adhering to exactly the same standards set by the turn of the century rich, which is actually why people wear white.

The tradition of wearing white between Memorial Day and Labor Day began at the end of the 19th century. If you were a wealthy New Yorker during those years, you wouldn’t stay in the city during the summer months. You’d retire to your country house in, say, Newport or the mountains. That was not only because the heat of the city would be unbearable. It would be, but the smell of the city would also be horrendous. New York had been industrialized during the those years, and it was filled with soot, waste, and so much horse dung that one statistician estimated in 1890 that, by 1930, the shit would have risen to be 30 feet high.

As you might imagine, that presents a lot of problems if you’re invested in keeping your outfits clean. When the weather was windy, dust and grit would fly onto outfits. When it was wet, you’d be wading through filth that accumulated in the streets. For that reason most urban workers in the city preferred to wear darker colors. If you were splattered with horse dung on your way to the millinery where you worked, well, at least no one would be able to see it. Those dark colors were especially useful in the winter, where you’d be heating your home with coal, and the dust would almost certainly get on your outfit.

Photo: Fine Art Photographic/Getty

For the wealthy, escaping from the city meant departing to places of relative cleanliness. No horse dung! Or at least less horse dung! So, you’d want to pack up your white clothing for your departure to the country. Or perhaps you’d even keep a separate set of lighter clothing at your country estate. Either way, when you returned to the city, around Labor Day, you’d put those clothes aside, and don your darker clothes once more.

It’s for that reason that white clothing — from flowing white summer dresses, to white suits, to panama hats — came to be associated with genteel society. Or, at the very least, with people who did not have to work during the summer.

Over the next few decades, cities became a great deal cleaner. Logically, that meant that you could wear white just about any season. But the tradition of wearing the color only during the summer months didn’t disappear as you might expect.

Photo: Universal History Archive/Getty

As the country became filled with more and more self-made men, old money families searched for ways to establish that they were different from new money. People clung to traditions their families had maintained, like only wearing white during the summer, to separate themselves from the newly rich. Scoffing at those who didn’t know that white was to be worn during the summer at your extravagant summer home became one way for old money people to make fun of new money people.

Scoffing didn’t last long, though. By the 1950’s, this rule was known by just about everyone. And it was most zealously adhered to be the middle classes who desperately wanted everyone to think they were old money. So, think less the Vanderbilts, and more Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom.

It was around that time that the actual wealthy began dispensing with that convention. Coco Chanel wore white year round. Her white suits, often edged with a little black, became very fashionable in the 1950s. That doesn’t seem like a mere coincidence. I’m inclined to believe that a woman as savvy as Coco would know that as soon as the bourgeois were universally adhering to one rule, that rule was no longer fashionable. There’s usually an element of rule-breaking when it comes to what is stylish.

Photos: ullstein bild/Getty (L), Mondadori Portfolio/Getty (R)

And so, the truly wealthy began wearing white whenever they felt like it, while social climbers continued to stick with the "only wear white between Memorial Day and Labor Day" rule that had been relevant in the 1900s.

Which is kind of absurd, when you think about it. At the very least, it seems almost hilariously old-fashioned.

So, should you wear your white clothing past those two dates? Not if there is a lot of horse dung or coal dust around where you are. But if those concerns don’t apply to you, yes, of course you should. That dictate is utterly outmoded. And Coco Chanel is a much cooler person to model yourself off of from a style standpoint than Serial Mom.

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