Yesterday was Labor Day, which means today is something of a holiday itself. It’s the time when you’re supposed to collect all of the white items in your closet and banish them to storage for the next two seasons. Or so says a century olds fashion dictate that has somehow loomed large in the public’s conscious despite the fact that the actual fashion industry has ignored it for decades if not more.
The types that love to tell you what to wear take greater pleasure these days in explaining exactly how to wear white after labor day rather than tell you not to. No one blinks when an actress is decked out in a couture white gown to pick up an Oscar statuette months after Labor Day has come and gone (as Jennifer Lawrence did in 2014). Whites dot the Fall collections of even the most proper legacy fashion houses, and, as the most frequent retort to the rule points out, Coco Chanel herself famously wore white year-round.
Fashion has moved on from a rule that apparently dates back to turn of the century New York City society women. The industry is currently more interested in breaking down the traditional barriers between both seasons and gender (seasonless unisex is very in afterall) than keeping old rules in checks. In fact, the industry delights in breaking them. It used to be that the general rule was that a sleeve should be short enough as to not encumber the proper usage of one’s hands, and yet…
The “no white after Labor Day” adage has moved on from actual rule to something of a punchline (with either fashion or proper stuffy types often meant as the target). It is an undying meme. In fact, over the weekend satirist of the moment, John Oliver, sank his teeth into the rule and suggested seemingly frivolous rules to go along with other holidays.
“Honestly, we should be using more holidays as arbitrary points to stop doing things,” quipped the comic. “For instance, we should have a rule that after Thanksgiven you should stop decorating your home with Gords. Its cute in October, it’s acceptable but obnoxiously folksy in November, but after that, you’re just keeping loose produce lying around.”
It’s popped up elsewhere as a punchline before.
On Fraiser, the uptight and proper character of Niles Crane once said that his idea of true love involved “sharing a laugh together when you see someone wearing white after Labor Day.”
S. Epatha Merkerson’s character om Law and Order once wanted to “add a charge of felony bad taste” to the wrap sheet of suspects dressed in white during the chilly month.
Notable cinematic fashion victim Josie Grose of Never Been Kissed wore white after Labor Day, only to have the look stained in an embarrassing cafeteria fiasco.
It is also, apparently, one of the most memorable punchlines in the 2005 Dukes of Hazzard Movie (though, we imagine it didn’t have much competition).
Perhaps the most memorable “no white after Labor Day” moment in pop culture comes towards the end of John Waters’ Serial Mom. Kathleen Turner’s murderous housewife ruthlessly kills people over all matters of social faux pas (including, we suspect revealing spoilers without proper warning, so consider this yours), and caps off her spree by bludgeoning a woman for the crime of wearing white in the FAll.
As it turns out, Waters himself is actually a remaining devotee of the rule.
The meme, of course, is now even a literal meme.
It’s easy to imagine why the rule has such staying power as a punchline. Both fashion and high scoiety manners seem to many to be full of frivilous rules (and in fashion’s case, they change all the time). “No white after Labor Day” has become the most well known, and the quickest to pull to mind when someone wants to skewer them all. So while banishment of white after the start of Fall may no longer be a practice many actually follow, jokes about the rule will probably remain a fashion for a long while.