This post reveals the reasons and answers the question “Why do Americans wear white in summer?” Learn about the roots of this tradition, and the fashion rule not to wear white before Memorial Day and after Labor Day. Read about the misperceptions, societal impacts of the truth of white summer clothes.
- Wearing Black Instead of White in Summer Makes More Sense
- Physics of White
- Absorption of Heat
- Black Is Better than White in Summer
- Radiative Heat Loss Relation to Color
- Why Do Americans Wear White in Summer
- Urban Pollution at the End of the 19th Century
- Red Skies Were Normal
- Summer Retreats for the Rich
- Dirty Cities and Working Conditions Forbid Wearing White for Non-Rich People
- The Path from the Color of an Elite Group to Main Stream
- Summer White the Modern Way
- The Wearing Comfort of White
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Wearing Black Instead of White in Summer Makes More Sense
Physics of White
Many people answer the question “Why do Americans wear white in summer?” with “Because white reflects the Sunlight, you stay cooler than with any other color.”
Yes, white reflects the Sun’s radiation. However, our body also emits heat. Like the energy from the Sun, our body heat is a form of energy. This means the white fabric of your clothes also reflects your body heat back to your skin. Consequently, white clothing fails to keep you cool.
However, these facts are just part of the story. The reflection on the outside of the clothes occurs in the visible range of the solar spectrum, while on the inside, the thermal heat of your body is reflected in the infrared range. The reflection of a surface in the visible range can differ strongly from that in the infrared range.
So ideally, you want a fabric that has a high reflectivity for the Sun light and low (or zero) reflectivity in the infrared.
Absorption of Heat
On the contrary, black absorbs the heat as we meteorologists call it. Absorbing means taking up. The ability of a fabric to take up heat depends on its color (i.e. emissivity) with black having the highest emissivity (100%). Assumed that you aren’t sweating and the fabric is at outside air temperature, the energy balance between your body and the clothes’ fabric is given by the body heat flux density and the fabric’s emissivity and reflectivity (albedo). Consequently, at same temperature, black fabric reflects the least and absorbs the most heat.
Black Is Better than White in Summer
Therefore, from a physical point of view, wearing black in summer like it is the tradition in the countries around the Mediterranean Sea, seems to make much more sense at outside air temperatures below skin temperature. Of course, as you sweat, the moisture flux, and the fabric’s permeability for water and/or water vapor may strongly modify the energy balance, and, hence the fabric used and thermal comfort are interconnected. In other words, the fabric properties also play a big role for comfort.
Radiative Heat Loss Relation to Color
So what’s the “cool factor” fashion-wise of Americans wearing white in summer?
Why Do Americans Wear White in Summer?
The old fashion rule not to wear white after Labor Day and before Memorial Day goes back to the end of the 19th century. Note that at that time, the two holidays were not yet established.
In East Coast cities, the urban heat island effect combined with the muggy hot air and air pollution from emissions of the early industrialization reduced the quality of life. Without AC and/or electric vans, any rooms heated up to uncomfortable (and often for elderly deadly) conditions.
Urban Pollution at the End of the 19th Century
Furthermore, back then, coal served to produce the energy needed for steam engines and other industrial processes. The sulfur dioxide, aerosols including soot released during the combustion process led to “stinky, unhealthy” air with low visibility, and of course, acidic rain during the frequent thunderstorms. Add the pee and poops of the horses to the mix. The odor must have been just awful! Not to mention that the feces emitted volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs may cause either higher or lower ozone concentrations depending on the concentrations of nitrogen oxides.
Red Skies Were Normal
When you could travel back in time (like in science fiction movies, comics or books) to the East Coast cities of the 18th century, you would have seen pink skies and a pink Sun on cloud-free days even around noon (weather situations under high pressure systems). The Sun beams would travel thru a layer with many aerosols including soot. As a result, just the red light of the Sun’s visible spectrum remains.
When you live in a region where wildfires are a natural process of the landscape evolution you may have a good idea of a reddish Sun, low visibility and pollution on days when the smoke rolls in, and how hazardous smoke annoys in summer.
When a high pressure system strengthened, visibility and air quality worsened. The sky would turn gradually more and more salmon pink reddish (like during sunset). These red skies still lasted into the mid 19th century. Take a look at paintings of cities from that time. See for instance, Thomas Chambers’ painting Threatening Sky, Bay of New York.
Summer Retreats for the Rich
In the cities, dirt was everywhere, not just from horse dung. Soot and dust fell out of the often stagnant air contributing further to dirty streets. Whoever was rich enough to retreat into their chalet in the mountains (Catskills, Adirondacks, Appalachian, Vermont), at the Atlantic Coast (Newport, Long Island, etc.) or on a lake would do so during the warm season.
Away from the cities, the air and environment was clean. The elevation made temperatures more bearable as temperature usually decreases with height in the region below about 10 km (6.21 miles) height (troposphere). The relatively cooler water of the Atlantic than the land led to see-breezes and welcome cooling. Rooms stayed at lower temperatures in these rural areas than in town. Summers in the country side were pleasant.
Dirty Cities and Working Conditions Forbid Wearing White for Non-Rich People
It is obvious that you can’t wear white when you work 12 or more hours in the factory six days a week and have to wash your clothes by hand. On the contrary, rich people had their personnel to wash and iron the clothes. Consequently, they could afford to wear white (even when coming or leaving the city).
Why Is White an American Summer Color?
Between what today is known as Memorial Day and Labor Day, the Sun’s radiation reaching the surface is strong on cloud-free days. Thus, minor stains (colors) bleach when laundry is drying outside.
Obviously, light-color clothes look dirty more easily than the dark ones. Consequently, you have to wash the former more often than the latter. During summer, laundry dries faster than in winter due to the exponential relationship of the saturation of water-vapor pressure and temperature. At 90% relative humidity, for instance, warm air can take up more water vapor from the wet clothing than cold air at the same relative humidity.
Most likely meteorological conditions and the cleanness of the country side together led to the restriction of white to the warm season.
The Path from the Color of an Elite Group to Mainstream
These above facts gave the color the association with luxury. Like always in history, people dreamed of wearing what the upper class wore. Thus, the middle class (which only encompassed a few people at that time) started wearing white as Sunday’s Best.
In the 20th century, working conditions improved, and cities became cleaner than before. Therefore, more people picked up wearing the color that seemed to scream
“This person has money.”
Why Do Americans Wear White in Summer and Beyond Today?
Today, you can wear the color year round. Due to the invention of washers and dryers the laundry process became less labor intensive. The possibilities of at-home dry-cleaning give you the freedom to wear your look when you want it. See, for instance, the all American Must-have white button-down shirt, T-shirt, boyfriend pants, and white leather attire. And, yes, you can wear leather in spring and summer.
For your skin protect, it is best to wear garments that meet the criteria of Sun safe clothes.
Photos of me: G. Kramm
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