Before you go out shopping for that killer outfit to wear to this weekend's various Labor Day parties, set aside a few minutes to learn more about that end of summer fashion rule somebody taught you a long time ago. If all else fails, it will be a decent conversation starter with that cute chick/dude you meet at this weekend's get-togethers.
As the legend goes, around the turn of the century, it was common for wealthier individuals to spend their summers abroad in scenic vacation spots. The lighter colored clothing they would wear to combat the heat distinguished them from the average worker who couldn't afford such fancy clothing. When these wealthy vacationers returned home at the end of summer, they would put their white linen away and dress more weather appropriate. By the 1950s, this upper class fashion habit had solidified into an unofficial social law that aspiring members of polite society would follow in order to showcase their knowledge of proper etiquette.
Regardless of the facts, when you consider the American labor movement history, it's ironic that such a superficial fashion rule happens to be connected with the historic struggle of workers tyring to improve their working and economic conditions.
Wealth and class have always played a significant role in American society. In his seminal work, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, American historian Charles A. Beard lays out the argument that the structure of the Constitution reflects the financial interests of the founding fathers. Beard compiled all the information he could find about the personal wealth of the state delegates sent to construct the Constitution. He contends many of these individuals stood in opposition to the farmer and planter classes, and the Constitution was written to check the radical tendencies of these more common classes of farmers and debtors, with many of the founding fathers owning a large portion of the nation's debt at that time.
As the American economy progressed and the industrial revolution gained steam, laborers began accumulating in large city centers. The abundance of labor in these areas encouraged capitalists to invest in large scale labor intensive enterprises. These large labor pools created inter-class competition pushing down wages. These conditions caused laborers to band together to try to negotiate better wages and working conditions. Many times these early organizers faced criminal conspiracy charges until the landmark Commonwealth v. Hunt court decision officially allowed combined labor petitioning and created a strict distinction between English and American legal treatment of unions. Labor struggles progressed throughout the rest of the 19th century and early 20th Century with violent strikes and riots originating from continuing labor unrest until the election of FDR ushered in new labor protections, helping solidify the Democratic party as the party of workers. Recently, beginning during the Reagan administration, union membership has been steadily declining, especially in the private sector.
Labor unions have been very influential in shaping American labor laws, often times setting precedent for federal legislation decades before it is enacted. It will be interesting to see how unions adapt to changing economic conditions and the increasing passage of anti-union legislation by Republican-controlled states.
Until then, if you feel self-conscious about wearing those new white pair of slacks next week, just remember how much you're sticking it to the system by doing it ... kind of.