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Fashionistas get ready: It’s safe to break out the white clothing.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Fashionistas, get ready. Now that Memorial Day has come and gone, it's safe to break out the white clothing. But we're wondering why. I mean, sure, it's hot, wear white, but what's so terrible about wearing white after Labor Day?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Well, the answer goes back to old Europe, where white clothing was a symbol of wealth. Here's Anne Higonnet. She's an art historian at Barnard College.

ANNE HIGONNET: In the 17th century, one sees many portraits of great aristocrats wearing splendid, white, silk satin outfits.

MARTIN: And why did rich folks wear whites?

HIGONNET: Because white is difficult to maintain.

MARTIN: So clean whites were a sign you had the wherewithal - the money or staff - to keep them white.

FADEL: Fast-forward to the turn of the 20th century in America, where white clothing became both a symbol of wealth and the changing of the seasons. Here's fashion historian Raissa Bretana.

RAISSA BRETANA: Those Gilded Age families were able to decamp to their Newport cottages, where they would don summer clothing, often white, that was more appropriate for those locations.

MARTIN: The seasonal clothing industry emerged in the 1920s, starting with men's fashion.

BRETANA: There was a date where you switched from your felt to your straw hats for summer, and then a date where you switched back to your felt hats for the fall. And those dates happened to fall right around Memorial Day and Labor Day.

MARTIN: But things got out of hand in 1922 with something called the Straw Hat Riots.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRETANA: People started, you know, snatching straw hats off of the heads of unsuspecting men in New York City and destroying them because it was after Labor Day.

FADEL: Cooler heads and hats prevailed, but the seasonal fashion industry was off and running. Bretana says these days, the rules about wearing white after Labor Day are no longer such a thing.

BRETANA: In recent years, it's been more fashionable to say this is absolutely not a rule that you should be following. So it's interesting to see how the tide has changed to rules are meant to be broken.

MARTIN: And if you don't want to worry about all that, well, get a job in radio. Wear what you want.

(SOUNDBITE OF RIGHT SAID FRED SONG, "I'M TOO SEXY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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