THE WHITE SHOE RULE AND “STRAW HAT DAY”:
David A. Bagwell
Fifty years ago, and more, the tradition in the deep South was that beginning on Easter weekend -- well before what people now call “Memorial Day”-- it became safe to wear white pants and skirts, white shoes and spectators, and a straw hat. I lump all that light-colored stuff together into what I call “The White Shoe Rule”.
Some Southerners today don’t buy that. They say that The White Shoe Rule doesn’t start until what we now call “Memorial Day”. Most of those people seem unusually certain that they know what they are talking about.
My answer to them is that they have gradually become –apparently unknowingly, I’ll charitably grant them that– the pawns and tools of the general Yankee-fication of America. I fully understand that this is a serious charge, but as Martin Luther said, “here I stand; God help me, I can do no other”, except he said it in German.
It’s a serious fashion question, even in this time of war, and sadness, and–their first cousin– presidential politics. Maybe it’s idle and frivolous to speak of the rules of fashion, but even during war and elections, life moves on, and so must we.
So, when may we properly begin --and when must we properly stop-- the wearing of white? Good question.
Do you remember the book The Southern Belle Primer by the wonderful late Marilyn Schwartz, whose subtitle was to the effect that Her Royal Highness Princess Margaret could never get in Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority because she wore white shoes in Texas the wrong time of year? I’m convinced that a lot of people misunderstand all this “White Shoe Rule” stuff, and not just the late Princess Margaret. A lot of us don’t know as much about our dress code history as we should.
Oh, sure; I know that every written source on fashion which might mention it, will say that you cannot wear white or straw hats before “Memorial Day”; we’ll get to all that in a moment. But all those books are written by Yankees. What you will read in those books is just – out with it now – just the Yankee rules. In the South, ours were always different, and they still are, unless we are morphing into Yankees, as some of us are.
Of course nobody should wear white all of the time. In 1880 Mark Twain wrote of his character Colonel Grangerford that “every day of his life he put on a clean shirt and a full suit from head to toe made out of linen so white it hurt your eyes to look at it.” But every day? Even in winter? In deepest winter, now, you’ll obviously make a spectacle of yourself in white. On December 7, 1906, when Mark Twain went to a copyright law hearing in the Capitol in Washington, D.C.– in December in Washington, mind you– he wore a suit of white wool flannels, not white linen. But the ruckus he raised by wearing a white suit in Washington in the winter landed him in stories in the New York Times, Herald, and Tribune the next morning. Of course, his point about copyrights was in the article, too, which just goes to show you that clothing can not only make a fashion statement, it can also help your substantive statement get published. Twain said funereally that “when a man reaches the advanced age of 71 years as I have, the continual sight of dark clothing is likely to have a depressing effect upon him”. And “a group of men in evening clothes looks like a flock of crows, and is just about as inspiring”, he said. But, if you aren’t 71 and you aren’t Mark Twain, and it is not 1906–and I’m not and it isn’t– you must pay some attention to these rules, you know. Which means that you must know what the rules are.
The first thing to understand is that there are EXCEPTIONS to all this White Shoe Rule stuff, no matter when the starting date is.
One exception is "The Southern Resort Exception". At any Southern resort, like Boca Grande or Palm Beach or farther off in Bermudan or Carribean resorts and all that, white clothes and straw hats are ALWAYS allowed, regardless of the season. My father told me that the Yankees who went to the University of Alabama with him in the early 1930s wore white shoes all winter, on the apparent theory that Tuscaloosa was a Southern resort, which is clearly twelve points off true north.
What’s a “Southern resort”, anyway, outside of Boca Grande or something? Well, probably the place where I live– Point Clear on Mobile Bay -- barely qualifies as “a Southern resort”, although locals don’t wear white shoes here in the winter. What about Charleston and Savannah and Mobile? Well, maybe, but that’s pushing it. Here on the Gulf coast in winter the “snowbirds” from Michigan and Ohio and Canada wear shorts all winter visiting here -- and shiny nylon jackets which say things like “UAW Local 312" on the back-- but snowbirds just don’t for my purpose; I mean, they’re just snowbirds, which is what we lawyers call “a lesser-included offense”. To an Englishman, any place where it is warm and not raining at that moment, is apparently considered a “Southern resort”, which is precisely how H.R.H. Princess Margaret got in such hot water out in Texas for wearing white shoes in Dallas before their time– whatever their time is in Dallas.
The second exception is “The Yacht Exception”. I am not too sure of the breadth of this exception, either, never having owned a yacht and all, but I think that weather permitting, you may always wear white clothes on a yacht, at least if you don’t change your own engine oil, and no gentleman does that. This may be a sub-theorem of the Southern Resort Rule, since one always keeps her yacht in the South during the winter, doesn't she? And, speaking of The Late Princess Margaret, since the British Royal family has sent the Royal Yacht BRITANNIA to the wreckers for scrap, I just don’t know where they wear their whites, other than maybe Dallas in a pinch. The picture on my wall of Commodore Vanderbilt on his yacht – and before “The Late Unpleasantness” his yacht was the biggest yacht in the world– shows him in black wool with fur trim, so obviously it is not de rigeur– as we say down home-- that you wear whites on your yacht in winter. What’s a yacht? Well, paraphrase what J.P. Morgan said about “if you have to ask . . . . .”. I do know that none of my little canoes and duckskiffs and kayaks and rowboats and motor skiffs is “a “yacht”, and so mostly I just wear khaki shorts.
OK, exceptions aside, what exactly is The Rule?
Well, everybody agrees on the ENDING date of The White Shoe Rule, namely, that after Labor Day, you cannot wear white pants or suit or shoes, unless you meet one of the exceptions.
It's just the BEGINNING date for The White Shoe Rule that causes the problem.
To Yankees, the rule was always-- at least after Memorial Day was declared, after the Civil War -- that you cannot wear white pants or skirts or suits or shoes until what Yankees have always called “Memorial Day”, which is of course the last Monday in May.
But then that’s Yankees. My research confirms that in general, over the South, Easter weekend – and not Memorial Day-- was the beginning for the White Shoe Rule. Remember that Easter was the day on which boys got a new white linen coat, if their parents could afford one? And white shoes? They didn’t wait until Memorial Day.
That Easter rather than Memorial Day was the starting date for The White Shoe Rule in the South is not surprising, for two reasons. First, the South obviously gets hot earlier than the North does; I mean, what level are we on? Second, what we now call “Memorial Day” was originally set up as a memorial for Union soldiers in the Civil War, and when I grew up it was called “Yankee Memorial Day”. Here in Alabama the Federal workers got a holiday on “Yankee Memorial Day”, but the State workers got the holiday on “Confederate Memorial Day”, which in Alabama was April 26th [The rest of us in the private world always worked on both Yankee Memorial Day and Confederate Memorial Day]. Nobody in the deep South would have dated a fashion requirement or anything else from Yankee Memorial Day; I mean, laese majesty and all that! So, Easter was it.
I told you straight-out my theory that the people who think that the first day of The White Shoe Rule is Yankee Memorial Day rather than Easter, and who are moving the fashion goalposts from Easter to Yankee Memorial Day, are just one small part of the general Yankee-fication of America. National Public Radio no less, certainly an expert on the Yankee-fication of America, reported that Texas singer “Kinky” Friedman of the singing group “Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys”-- Kinky won the “Male Chauvinist of the Year” Award of The National Organization for Women with his song “Put Your Biscuits in the Oven and Get Your Buns Back in Bed”-- ran for governor of Texas in 2006 on the platform “Stop the Wuss-ification of Texas”. Kinky lost, but that is just a small skirmish in the larger battle over the general Yankee-fication of America.
But, for some reason– I don’t know why-- Easter was not necessarily the beginning day for straw hats for men. Strangely and “counter-intuitively”, as intellectuals seem to say, there was a totally separate and clear Southern rule for straw hats, and it certainly wasn’t Yankee Memorial Day, which was far too late to switch to straw hats. There was something called “Straw Hat Day” in the old days when people wore hats, and on “Straw Hat Day” it was like some Fred Astaire musical with a chorus, and everybody in unison– men and women, but mostly men -- all doffed their felt hats and put on their straw hats.
When was “Straw Hat Day”? Well, if you research it on the internet you’ll find that people in the upper South and Maryland seem to think that there was a “National Straw Hat Day” and that it was on May 15th. Well, not so fast.
We had a “Straw hat Day” in Mobile, and in Montgomery where I grew up, and surely in many other towns, but it was not May 15th; instead, it was a moveable feast. “Straw Hat Day” in Mobile was on whatever springtime day the Mayor’s proclamation of “Straw Hat Day” said it would be, but it was always just before Easter, usually on either Maunday Thursday, or the next day on Good Friday, just in time for the spring and Easter– read: white– finery to flower. The earliest recorded Mayor’s proclamation of Straw Hat Day in Mobile that I found during lunch in the City Archives was in 1931.
Why 1931? Well, hard to say for sure, but one clue is that the Mobile Register for March 7, 1931, which said "The first straw hat of 1931 appeared on Royal and Dauphin streets yesterday, far ahead of the official advent of spring. The latest model of 'head-gear' was worn by a stylishly dressed man, who did not seem embarrassed by eyes that stared and comments made as he passed along the avenues". Maybe the notable uncertainty of the proper beginning day for straw hats, so obvious in March of 1931, prompted the male populace to demand that the Mayor set an actual beginning date for straw hats; who knows at this point? While the files are not complete, these proclamations of “Straw Hat Day” seem to have run pretty steadily from 1931 until John Kennedy ran for president in 1960, when fashionable young men decided that fashionable young men simply did not wear hats any more. If fashionable young men don’t wear hats, then there is no need for a “Straw Hat Day”.
These old Mayoral proclamations here of “Straw Hat Day” are wonderful throwbacks to another world of springtimes filled with wisteria and azaleas, usually reciting in multiple “whereases” that “Mobile is a veritable flower garden with the air scented with street perfume and the streets lined with the riotous coloring of floral displays”, that “our birds are singing everywhere and their songs are the harbingers of new life and springtime”, noting the date of the Mobile Bears’ opening game and pointedly proclaiming that the proper hat to be worn at all baseball games “is a STRAW hat” – note that it is not a baseball cap– and declaring “Straw Hat Week”. “All citizens of the city”-- and not just men-- were “urged to put away their winter chapeaux and to replace them with sparkling new STRAW HATS”. So straw hat day was always just before Easter. Attention Yankees and the running dogs of Yankees: “Straw Hat Day” in the South never had anything to do with Yankee Memorial Day.
I’m not the guy to talk about women’s Mardi Gras finery in Mobile and New Orleans, other than admiring it and paying for it, but everybody knows that women beat Easter to the punch by forty or more days during Mardi Gras, wearing light clothes and straw hats.
But, then in the fall, the Southern cities would flip back, on some designated day about a month after Labor Day, proclaimed by the Mayor and City Commission to be called “Felt Hat Day”.
And, it’s worth noting in passing – since it is clearly forgotten by most of us– that there were official Mayoral proclamations banning suits and coats in the daytime in the summer, beginning about July 1st. Apparently the “Coats Off Campaign” in late summer was started by the Junior Chamber of Commerce just after WWII, and by the middle 1950s Southern mayors often proclaimed that beginning on “Sport Shirt Day” on July 1st or 2nd or something, and usually running all summer until the official first day of fall on September 21, “the proper, modest and polite attire for gentlemen in the City [shall] be and the same is hereby declared to be a neat, lightweight sports shirt instead of coat and necktie for all occasions from sunrise to sunset, and also proper evening attire except for formal occasions”. Now, why in the world was that ever abandoned in the South? Obviously the advent of air conditioning nipped it, but still, that is a tradition that Southerners ought to have preserved, just as they ought to have preserved more old buildings and houses and all of that. Here in Fairhope we still have a sportshirt tradition in both the summer and the winter, and we impart this tradition to our sons and grandsons in Homeric song before the fire of an evening. It might be our role to do that now, and so I now heartily recommend to all, wherever they live, that they go back to the sound traditions of their fathers and grandfathers, and not be unsound on the sportshirt question.
Now, admittedly, this fashion stuff was mostly higher- income people in the first place, and whether or not this date was observed by a man plowing a mule –switching his and his mule’s hats from the wool hat to the straw hat– I just cannot say for sure. But I can say for sure that a man who wore a felt hat until Yankee Memorial Day looked pretty strange on a Southern street. Or, a man who even recognized Yankee Memorial Day, for that matter.
But these rules seem to be moving fast. Friends who know, say that at the Fairgrounds in New Orleans, plenty of the horse owners in the winners’ circle wear white suits in the early spring, even shortly after Mardi Gras. Maybe New Orleans always started wearing white after Mardi Gras; I don’t know, or maybe even never stopped wearing white? Is New Orleans a “Southern resort”? But, why-oh-why do New Orleanians have to wear those black shoes and bright shirts and ties with their white suits; it’s Atticus Finch morphing into “Fast Eddie’s Used Cars”, for heavens’ sakes.
The edges of The White Shoe Rule are increasingly ragged. In the women’s fashion field there is some analog to “Moore’s Law” in computers, such that the rapidity of changes in fashion trends tends to multiply by a factor of four every three years, or something. Attractive young women in high fashion who are inexplicably close to me report that “modern fashionistas wear white year-round to get that ‘edgy look’ as they call it”, not following any rule but their own. Examples?
Wearing white leather boots in the winter, for instance; obviously not meant for summer, but still white. The apparent idea of “edginess” is “intentional fashion faux pas”. But, the edgy look of white shoes year round can only be pulled off by those who are, you know–edgy. “On the average woman, it will simply look like someone who didn’t quite know whether it was Easter or Memorial Day yet.” Which is still better than those white patent shoes and belt on Fast Eddie’s used car lot, and all. Whether white rubber boots on a shrimper are “edgy” or not, I’ll let you decide; I mean, some of these questions are pretty far out.
Well, I don’t have a yacht, and I’m not too sure this is a southern resort, but for my money, white clothes are OK from Easter through Labor Day, on clear days anyway, and being reasonable about it, like “OK at garden parties but not funerals”. Suit yourself, but if you don’t agree, then you may well be a Yankee.
David Bagwell lives in Point Clear, Alabama, and has his own "White Shoe Law Firm" in Fairhope. In almost six decades he has never lived outside the South, although he once spent most of a year traveling around the world on a Fellowship to study international business, during which he almost always wore a suit, but never a white suit or white shoes, since the message of a white suit in -say-Rangoon or Calcutta, or even Marseilles, might convey a different messsage than intended.
Thank you again David.
PS: An email from David says the Straw Hat Day in Fairhope is next Thursday