Wearing White Before Ever



Mel and Cricket have both mused this week about wearing white before Memorial Day. Let me say this. I can find no record at all of this rule’s origin. Let me now also say this. Wear white whenever you want.

Think about it. Rules are made for two reasons. First, between peers, to ensure efficient functioning. Think soccer, Go Fish, the New York Stock Exchange trading floor. Second, by the ruling power to ensure control of the subordinate group. Think grade school, the Army, Jim Crow.

White clothes involve rules between peers to ensure efficient functioning? Bear with me. The unendurable difficulty of laundry prior to the modern Appliance Era made clothes you had to wash any more than absolutely necessary impractical, if not tools of torture. Lye was involved. And those who didn’t wash by hand were lucky, yes, lucky, to use a piece of equipment called a “mangle”. Right. Mangle. The rule No White Clothes Before Memorial Day, when one might hope to be done with snow and ice and slush, and puddles might be shorter lived, spared an entire cadre of washerwomen unnecessary labor and their employers unnecessary cost.

This edict may also have given the haves one more sign to distinguish themselves from the have nots. On a late summer morning, possibly, in the second half of the 19th century, possibly, the lady of the house, someone related to me, possibly, woke up and contemplated packing to go back to New York from New Jersey, or to Boston from the Cape. Exhausted by the thought, she said to her maid, “It’s just not right to wear white before Memorial Day. We will leave our white clothes here. And”, she said over her shoulder to her husband, “Darling, you should leave those white bucks behind as well. You know you won’t be wearing seersucker during the Season.” So anyone who participated in the Season, in New York, in Boston, in London (come on, someone else read Georgette Heyer, right?), would not wear white in town, for fear of being marked as someone with no summer house. Horror of all horrors. ( I feel compelled to say I have my tongue in my cheek.) Again, all this is only possible.

If you and your peers want to agree to wear white only after Memorial Day or Easter please do. (I have far more trouble with rules made by one group of humans in order to suppress or shame another group of humans. For any reason. But that’s a separate issue.) I stand my ground that the wearing of white no longer has absolute social significance. Even my mother, the Boston debutante, wears white whenever she pleases.

I asked her.

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