Today, fashion is widely viewed as a form of self-expression, a way to communicate individuality to the world without saying a word. In the 19th-century however, clothing served a far different function. For men and women in the 1800s, fashion was a means of imposing and understanding order in an unstable American society: certain styles and fabrics belonged to the wealthy while poorer Americans adopted their own modes of dressing. These distinctions allowed rich citizens to demonstrate their own stature while recognizing, or rather, ranking, others by their clothing.
In keeping with the dramatic changes characterizing this period, America’s clothing-based classes were rocked after the end of the Civil War. As extreme wealth became increasingly common, hitherto prestigious styles grew ubiquitous, therein lessening their value in the eyes of America’s long-established millionaires. Finding it difficult to distinguish old money from new money, society ladies developed a series of fashion rules for in-the-know dressers to follow. One such rule? One should not wear white after Labor Day.
As elitist as it was, this rule turned out to be the perfect test for 19th-century society. Much of the country continued to face sweltering temps even in September, and ladies across America were forced to decide: would they let the weather or high society dictate their attire? If they wished to avoid ostracization, it was necessary to follow their peers’ arbitrary fashion rules. Once Labor Day officially became a federal holiday in 1894, the fate of fashion was sealed.
Or was it? What began as a rule enforced by a relatively small circle of just a few hundred women eventually made rounds across the globe via women’s fashion magazines.
Surprisingly however, it is exactly this spread which served to stop the rule’s reign. Once cosmopolitan socialites, such as fashion designer Coco Chanel, were seen dressing in defiance of the rule, the rest of the world took notice. Today, ‘winter whites’ dominate runways and city streets alike, with some brave New Yorkers even risking their whites in winter’s city slush. While fashion snobs still exist, Northerners have come a long way since the 19th-century, when rules were made so modern-day New Yorkers would have something to break.