She entered. “I’m so happy Labor Day is coming. Now I don’t have to wear white anymore. I look good in black.”
What’s that all about? I’m not fashion conscious. Always naïve, for twenty years the Navy’s dress code took care of my fashion statements.
Almost as soon as she was seated, the writer critique meeting started. Determined to research this “wear white until Labor Day,” I jotted down a brief note.
Arriving home, Bernie and Chris’s happy faces crowded me for attention, making it somewhat difficult to open the door. My voice squealed pleasure, and both hands sought to rub the tops of their heads. Coming home to them was always a calm, settling experience.
During the meeting, after reading my short story and shared not having anything more to write, a few suggestions flowed. Minutes later I was slipped a note to write about laws not obeyed or antiquated rules.
It became the perfect reason to research not to wear white after Labor Day. It wouldn’t take me long to write the article, not more than a few hours.
Research consumed Saturday morning. So was Sunday and Monday. I spent Tuesday, and most of Wednesday culling all the data and wished she never made her announcement.
Well, if nothing else, I could tell her she was out of touch. White can be worn all year long, and black isn’t the current best dark color. This year it’s Navy Blue. I’m now in style, even though I’m only wearing Navy blue shorts.
Seriously, I have learned a lot about fashion, more than I want to know. Fashion is more than clothes. An outfit established part of a person’s culture. I didn’t realize the huge control women had that impacted clothing styles. Women have used fashion as a feminist tool throughout history.
Women know this but not all men. To most men, if it’s not a car or machine, it’s not that important.
The “you can’t wear white after Labor Day” originated in the late 1900s. The old money elitists designed it to separate them from the new money group. The old rich did not allow outsiders into the “club” because they didn’t meet the required dress code. Today, private clubs have similar rules to be admitted.
In the early 1900s, “money people” left hot cities during the warm months. White was considered vacation attire. During the 1930s, the city people wore dark clothes. They considered white linen suits and Panama hats “looks of leisure.” There were many petty rules people created to prevent associating with undesirable folks.
Labor Day, the first Monday of September, was declared a holiday in 1894. It marked the end of summer. Psychologically, it presented a much clearer sense of re-entry. Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology stated, “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.”
That new wardrobe was extensive and expensive. Depending on your lifestyle, you may need attire for a dozen clothing groups. Most people placed the same clothes in more than one cluster.
Categories were: Casual, Smart casual, Business casual, Garden attire or beach formal, Cocktail attire, Festive, Business formal, Semi-formal, Black tie optional, Creative black tie, Black tie, and White tie (ultra-formal).
My lifestyle casual wardrobe changes with Arizona’s seasons. The cooler months from late October until Mid-April, I wear long pants, long-sleeved shirts, sweaters, coat, shoes, and white socks. I may wear a hat. In warm months, a short-sleeved shirt, shorts, a face-protecting hat, shoes, and white socks are enough.
Historically, women decided to take charge of fashion in the 1800s. It was the age of the corsets, stiff petticoats, and ground-dragging skirts. Bloomers were the closest apparel to wearing pants in public.
The Women’s Suffrage movement ushered in the 1900s. These feminists organized marches and protests. The colors: Green, white, and purple symbolized their crusade. Purple represented dignity, white denoted purity and green meant hope. They pinned these colors into ribbons on hats, belts, and coats.
They called the 1920s the Bobbed Hair Epidemic. It was time to get rid of long hair. This fashion statement was a visual sign in their passage to freedom.
After World War I, the 1930s women started a slow fight for personal space in public where they could manage their funds, have a say in politics, economy and be in charge of their bodies─ whether that meant with a haircut or a man. The Chanel Two-Piece Suit appeared.
The next major style thrust came in the 1950s. Claire McCardell often called the mother of American Fashion, designed wrap dresses that could be quickly thrown on for a suburban dinner party. Fasteners, like buttons, hooks, and eyes on the sides were easy for a woman to manipulate. Zippers in the back were gone.
In the 60s, the miniskirt didn’t just challenge whether how women dressed was socially acceptable. Along with birth control prescriptions, a new “single girl” cosmopolitan attitude came the rise of divorce rates. It symbolized sexual reclaiming.
The wrap dress became gained a double life in the 70s. They could wear the wrap to the office, tied primly at the waist, or in the bedroom where it could be slipped off in a hurry─no buttons or zippers. Designer Furstenberg, when asked how she came up with the idea of a dress that was held together with a sash, coyly answered, “Well, if you’re trying to slip out without waking a sleeping man, zips are a nightmare.”
Women enjoyed the role of predators in the boardroom and bedroom alike.
Finally, the 80s completed the long feminist freedom march. Power suits and boardrooms found women in charge.
Jo Paoletti, professor and author of “Sex and Unisex: Fashion, Feminism, and the Sexual Revolution” shared in an interview with “Bustle” magazine.
“While women have spent decades if not centuries batting away the narrow definition of what is expected of them, the clothes they wore helped make their intentions known. What causes society to panic isn’t different hemlines, but rather women defining for themselves what it means to be a woman. So, the power of dress was an important tool that influenced their standing in society, helping them.”
What about everyone else?
In Silicon Valley in the early 80s, business casual consisted of khaki pants, sensible shoes, and button-down collared shirts. People weren’t interested in adhering to old norms. Restrictive clothing worn for appearances’ sake was inefficient, and Silicon Valley was all about efficiency.
Sociologist Herbert Blunt coined “collective selection” to explain that a given group set the parameters for what was appropriate to wear, or not to wear.
In the 80s, men dominated the workplace. The tension was created between women’s appearances and a male-dominated workspace when women wore casual dress attire. Did heels qualify as business casual and what about sleeveless blouses or walking shorts? It took a slow-but-steady business casual adoption progress through the 90s and 2000s.
West Coast employers were quick to accept business casual. It took the East Coast employers more time. “Casual Friday” became a kind-of-fun way to introduce new standards into the office. Today people are less beholden to rules like not wearing white after Labor Day.
Last Thursday evening she marched in, thankful Labor Day was almost over, and she could put white clothes away and again look great in black. At that moment it was my total clothes fashion awareness.
My rabbit hole research provided a wonderful history of the woman’s search for freedom. I wonder how many people understand their long, difficult struggle.
Graphic credits: https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2017/05/history-of-business-casual/526014/ https://www.bustle.com/articles/191181-how-women-have-used-fashion-as-a-feminist-tool-throughout-history