A White Attire Matter

Are they happy because it’s finally, after a grueling, claustrophobic winter, going to be SPRING? Then summer!

I’ve been considering the somewhat peculiar realm of white duds lately. It has to do with the faint possibility of spring. Of Easter coming up already. But it began when I took a long moment to consider my closet’s contents. What I beheld was an impressive spectrum of dark to darker colors that complement Portland’s steely grey weather, which is standard beginning November, ending sometime around late May; the city refuses to show off until then. I guess we tend to dress in sync with our environment except for rain gear, which needs to be vibrant, even garish, in order for us to be seen as we head out and about in the drenching downpour.

My current shirts, pants and a handful of skirts embrace respectable black/charcoal grey, muted berry tones and a faded red that gets ignored, deep purples/blues, a handful of piney and dark teal greens. There’s something fiery orange in there that must be a leftover from August or just a stray that should be recycled. Then hanging near the end of the wooden pole is a spot of white. Two spots. Why no white, even off-white, save for a shirt and a light tunic-type thing (got on sale, haven’t worn yet)? I’m not counting my old white (well off-white now) Gap long sleeved T-shirt for layering.

I have always had at least one wrinkle-free white blouse or shirt–the first being, I think, more form-fitting and maybe with an embellishment such as a discreet ruffle; the second being clean lined and tailored as possible. It’s what most of us include in our wardrobes; it’s a classic staple. Yet for me it tends to peek out from under a sweater or jacket, to complement a look. It doesn’t seek to bring attention to its own regrettable lack of rich pigment. Unless worn with excellent dark blue jeans or black slacks, sleeves rolled up to three-quarter length. Or with, say, artisan-made cuff links–then it becomes classy, not just an endurable classic, I suppose. At least, that’s what I see in fashion magazines. I’ve tried to be that woman at times; it takes a decided dash of panache, like an aging French actress who still dares to leave top buttons undone and glorious hair tossed about. But I wouldn’t know, anymore, just what I can do with it. It’s remained mostly uninhabited since retirement, before which I really dressed, and generally enjoyed it. I should throw it on to recall what it’s like to feel pulled together, refreshed with flair. Things have gradually gone south a tad. (Though I do still wear earrings and a favorite bracelet, tend to match things up–even when just at home. I mean, why bore myself? I enjoy even the facsimile of verve.)

But white is not something to play with when you’re a pale-to-sallow-skinned person like me; it can make me appear like death has one foot in the door. It actually gleams on someone with a warm color to their faces and eyes. Thus, it scares me; a little can change a lot, whether you are painting a picture or dressing. So much light bounces off of it so that there is a dual impact of innocuousness and dazzle. And am I supposed to accessorize it to add a bit of jazz or let its elegance or sportiness speak for itself?

Which brings me to the other thoughts about this wardrobe choice. I’m no fashion historian but I saw somewhere that the color white began to show up more in the 1930s, when the wealthy started to wear it in warm months, especially during leisurely activities. I conjure up a rousing game of croquet on a vast emerald lawn, or an outdoor court replete with tennis whites worn by attractive athletic couples. I imagine perspiration didn’t show on crisp togs. Finally by the fifties the wearing of this color trickled down to the middle class. Another few years white was just another color, take it or leave it, but stay mindful of that seasonal rule.

The more I think of it the more I realize white has tended to be a class marker as those who’ve worn it from the start were more likely (in this country) to be the “leisure” class– certainly when it first came in vogue. There are the whites that indicate summer or vacation life with sailing or outdoor games and sports, luncheon-and party-throwing. White has tended to more often be reserved for formal occasions– for women, at least (though men don white tuxes in warmer climes)–including grand dinner clothing or debutante gowns. I have heard that winning beauty contestants wear white more often. Formal attire and the color white do seem made for each other; you expect to stay clean for such events. The Navy has its dress whites. And let’s not forget brides who for an eon donned only a white wedding dress inspired, of course, by societal and moral expectations of “purity”–unrealistic or not.

White fabric, especially more expensive types, can mark a uniform so that it denotes a certain status, generally professional. The clothes of a doctor or nurse, dentist or scientific lab employee, chef, barber–these have traditionally been white fabric. (Why, I have wondered, given the various types of matter making their way onto such a pristine canvas? White collar workers came from the shirts (and suits/skirts) professionals in offices tended to wear for a few decades.

Generally white is a color one avoids when planning on getting dirty. Outdoors workers rescue personnel or police/military employees and various manual laborers–all have traditionally worn darker clothing, if not also uniforms of some sort. It makes most practical sense. Someone working on a construction site, engaged in gardening or putting out fires or doing field work tracking cougars or trumpet swans tend to get dirty. Their clothing gets messy without revealing wear too soon–then can be washed repeatedly without undo damage. My father didn’t work on his cars, the yard or even fix musical instruments in white clothing. (Though my son is a painter and wears white pants that quickly become an abstract painting…there must be a reason for this choice.) I don’t generally hike in the mountainous Columbia Gorge wearing my one pair of white jeans and have never scrubbed my long-ignored kitchen floor in matching white socks, shorts and top.

But when I began this post I was thinking a little of Easter. Wearing white meant it was the time to get fancy when I was a child. And the best occasion for this was Easter Sunday. My whole family spiffed up to the “nth degree” for church during such a time, and there was usually some white going on our bodies. The men in freshly pressed white shirts, the older females in perfectly white high heels and faux pearl-decorated gloves. Perhaps it had something to do with Jesus’ resurrection being equated with our own rebirth, but it was also–after an interminable wintry season–spring heralding nature’s glorious rejuvenation.

My childhood Easter dresses were often bright florals to reflect the special occasion. My favorite had a white cotton sateen background with large butterflies of blue, yellow, purple flitting about, and a belt tied in a big bow at the back. I was excited to put on white anklets with lace at the edges, paired with white patent leather Mary Jane shoes and topped off with short white gloves and often a small white bonnet with a small flower on it. I felt like a, well, a kind of princess. I wouldn’t dream of messing anything up before getting home where I changed for Easter Bunny time outside.

The notion that, as a general rule, white should not be worn before Memorial Day nor after Labor Day was ironclad most of my life. It seems particularly important in the South where my parents grew up; it just wasn’t done and I didn’t dream of making the gauche error of breaking of that rule. I suspect it had as much to do with the weather as anything, as everyone knows warmer months mean lighter clothing in both weight and coloration for comfort. Where the temperature rises into eighty or ninety degrees Fahrenheit and certainly above that, it is wisest to allow for even, rapid cooling of the body. In desert climates, people typically appear to cover themselves fully and loosely in lighter colors, more often white. Sun’s punishing heat is not so readily absorbed.

Fashion rules have been altered endlessly since my youth. And the rules for wearing white have, too. More women have gradually worn white and ivory woolens or other heavier and textured fabrics as autumn and winter months come and go. I’ve noticed white in shoes as well in all seasons for at least dressy affairs. I can barely keep up with what is in or out but I think it’s great styles have evolved into far more mix and match. It’s more playful, evocative and outright creative than in the more tradition-bound days. I can see fashion as an expressive art more and more, not just a whim or a necessity or something that denotes status. I have tended to feel less was more; my fashion-loving daughter and sister have had to nudge me toward more experimentation and I still swing back to a more classic style, certainly more casual. She’s in the forefront of these things; I am one standing middle of the road or the background, and that’s alright. Since not working for money, if I can’t wear it long hours writing, reading or making a little art or dancing about or working up a sweat outdoors, it doesn’t interest me much.

But I did buy that tunic-type, three-quarter-sleeved, white top not long ago at a great sale–maybe it was last year’s style. It’s a light linen blend and can be worn outside in the heat of summer’s day on a walk or dressed up with a long elegant necklace and shiny earrings or rich-hued scarf. For Easter, I’m thinking. That’s not really early and even so I’m wearing it, maybe with a pair of coral pants and goldish flats. Not so keen on white gloves or hat. But rainy chill or not, it’s time to liven things up around here, reawaken that warm weather brio, share a splash of sunshiny zest, add a good dash of elan. It seems white duds have their place and can even inspire, after all.

 

11 thoughts on “A White Attire Matter

  1. My hair turned white a couple of years ago. Prematurely of course. Now dark clothes seem so stark and drab. I’ve been thinking of buying more white. I think it might look nice but it does seem to be the realm of the rich or the young. So I keep pulling out the black and gray and navy yet again. Love your thoughts about white.

    1. I say go for the white or ivory and see what you think–it so often depends on skin color and eyes, too, I feel! My family–other than myself, oddly–generally becomes prematurely white and I have niece who has had white hair since her thirties. She looks fine in white–and she is also very fair–but tends to add a splash of color in a scarf or jewelry. Enjoy whatever you like! 🙂 Thanks for the comment.

  2. This was a very interesting exploration of colours in clothing. White’s association with formality and higher social status in the West was something I never thought about. In Chinese culture, white has a very different symbolism – that of death and emptiness, and as such white items and clothing tend to be avoided except during sombre occassions (black, on the other hand, is more commonly seen because of its elemental association with water) – and I think it’d be cool to explore how different colours are significant to different groups of people. This was a great post that I enjoyed reading 🙂

    1. So glad you found it informative and entertaining. Yes, it would be worth researching further, as clearly different cultures ascribe different values and usage as you noted. Might make a book with such a large number of traditions! Thanks for the info on a Chinese view of white and black!

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