In the United States of America its a tradition to wear white clothing in summer. Read about the roots of this traditions and the fashion rule not to wear white before Memorial Day and after Labor Day.
- Wearing black instead of white in summer makes more sense
- Physics of white
- Fashion’s history of Americans’ white summer clothes
- Urban pollution at the end of the 19th century
- Summer retreats for the Rich
- Dirty cities and working conditions forbid wearing white for non-rich people
- The path from the color of an elitary group to main stream
- Summer white the modern way
- Wearing black instead of white in summer makes more sense
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Wearing black instead of white in summer makes more sense
Physics of white
Many people believe that we Americans wear white in summer because white reflects the Sunlight and hence you would stay cooler than with any other color. It is right that white reflects the Sun’s radiation. However, our body also emits heat. Like the energy from the Sun, the heat from our body is a form of energy. This means the body heat is also reflected by the white fabric of your clothes, i.e. back to your body. Consequently, white clothing doesn’t keep you cool from a physical standpoint.
However, these points 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.
On the contrary to white, 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. Consequently, 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 fabrics 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.
So what’s the “cool factor” fashion-wise of wearing white in summer in America?
Fashion’s history of Americans’ white summer clothes
The old fashion rule not to wear white before Memorial Day and after Labor Day goes back to the end of the 19th century. 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 that may cause either higher or lower ozone concentrations depending on the concentrations of nitrogen oxides.
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 that absorb. Thus, just the red light of the Sun’s visible spectrum remains. As a high pressure system strengthened, visibility and air quality worsened and the sky would turn gradually more and more salmon pink redish (like during sunset). Take a look at paintings of cities from that time. These red skies still lasted into the mid 19th century. See for instance, Thomas Chambers’ painting Threatening Sky, Bay of New York. 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 air pollution from hazardous smoke annoys in summer.
Summer retreats for the Rich
In the cities, dirt was everywhere, not just from horse dung. Soot and dust sedimented out of the often stagnant air contributing further to dirty streets in the city. 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. Note that at that time, the two holidays were not yet established.
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, the former have to be washed more often than the latter. During the warm season, laundry dries faster than in winter due to the exponential relationship of the saturation of water vapor pressure and temperature. At 90% relative humidity and a high temperature, for instance, air can take up more water vapor from the wet clothing than at the same humidity, but at low temperature.
Most likely meteorological conditions and the cleaness of the country side together led to the restriction of white to the warm season. Today, the color can be worn year round. The invention of washers and dryers made the laundry process less labor intensive. The possibilities of at-home dry-cleaning give you the freedom to wear your look when you want it.
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. As working conditions improved in the 20th century, and cities became cleaner, more and more people picked up wearing the color that seemed to scream
“This person has money.”
Summer white the modern way
Blame my European raising, that I have loved black at any age, my being a deep Winter-Autumn color-season wise, or the pleasant temperatures of May, June and July in the Interior of Alaska, I wear a lot of black in the warm season. To be honest, I dislike wearing more than one item in white in an outfit. And yes, there is not much of this color in my closet. Sure the all American Must-have button-down shirt, T-shirt, a pair of boyfriend jeans and of course, leather as well as some prints. Yes, you can wear leather in spring and summer.
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Photos of me: G. Kramm
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