Not too long ago Etiquetteer witnessed a particularly unpleasant exchange on an Internet message board. The subject was the long-standing tradition not wearing white after Labor Day, and many participants heaped scorn on this beloved (at least by Etiquetteer) and time-honored tradition, and on anyone who would follow it. Disturbing as that was, Etiquetteer was equally disturbed to see such widespread disagreement about the roots of the tradition and to exactly which articles of clothing it affected. So Etiquetteer decided enough was enough and to get right down to the bottom of it . . . which was easier said than done.
Etiquetteer turned first to his own library of etiquette books:
The Book of Good Manners: A Guide to Polite Usage for All Social Functions by Frederick H. Martens (1923) overlooked it. Kindly Etiquette for Busy People by Rae Welch (1936) declined to include it. Emily Post’s Etiquette (the 1937 edition) made no reference to it. Today’s Etiquette by Lillian Eichler (1940) maintained silence on it. Esquire Etiquette: A Guide to Business, Sports, and Social Conduct (1953) did not mention it. Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Book of Etiquette (1954) failed to discuss it. I Try to Behave Myself by Peg Bracken (1964) completely bypassed it.
Judith Martin, upon whom may the Deity of Your Choice heap many blessings, at last mentions it in her definitive Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior (1982). She seconds her approach even more vigorously in Miss Manners’ Guide to the Turn-of-the-Millennium (1990), which Etiquettteer encourages you to read on page 149. And she further clarifies in Miss Manners Rescues Civilization (1996).
Now one would think that if anyone would make a complete 100% declarative statement brooking no dissent it would be Miss Manners. And she does, but only in terms of white shoes . . . and that is frustrating. You may be sure, at least, that she and Etiquetteer agree that the wearing of white shoes is bounded by the holidays Americans use to define summer: Memorial Day and Labor Day.
After that, Etiquetteer was horrified to learn that no less an authority than the Emily Post Institute has declared that the rule no longer applies! (The passage in question is midway down the page.) Etiquetteer can only consider this blasphemy.
But what of the rest of one’s outer wardrobe? In the complete absence of written evidence Etiquetteer has little to go on but the films of Ingmar Bergman (you will recall that everyone wears spotless white during Bergman summers) and the story of Lily Hammersley from Marian Fowler’s wonderful book In a Gilded Cage. Mrs. Hammersley, socially treading on thin ice anyway, spent the summers of her first marriage in Newport. There, she sat alone ostentatiously dressed entirely in white on the lawn of her club. No one spoke to her, and she was frequently derided behind her back. A few years later, all the ladies appeared in white outfits unrelieved by any color at all. But by this time Mrs. Hammersley had divorced (!) and moved overseas. At least Etiquetteer thinks that’s how the story went. If you find out otherwise, please let Etiquetteer know.
After all this rooting about, Etiquetteer still feels on shaky ground, but hardly ready to give way. Indeed, Etiquetteer has even offered an opinion in the discussion at Faking Good Breeding, a fashion blog.
So today, Labor Day, Etiquetteer will lovingly lay away his folds of white linen and blue seersucker and carefully tree and bag his white bucks until next Memorial Day, and will prepare to Wag an Admonitory Digit at those who don’t.