Several years ago I reached out to Mr. David Bagwell, esteemed Fairhope, Alabama attorney and overall nice guy in an effort to persuade him to allow me to reprint his story The White Shoe Rule. David graciously consented and I have been thankful ever since. David's "Rule" is required reading no matter on which side you dress, just in time for Easter Week.
David Bagwell, by the way, lives in Point Clear, Alabama and has his own "White Shoe Law Firm" in Fairhope, Alabama, both on Mobile Bay.
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. But Southern tradition suggests that they are wrong.
It’s a serious fashion question, even in this time of war and economic travail. Maybe it’s idle and frivolous to speak of the rules of fashion anytime, some think, but even during war and elections and recession, 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 into Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority because she wore white shoes in Texas the wrong time of year? I’m convinced that a lot of people beyond princesses misunderstand all this “White Shoe Rule” stuff. A lot of us don’t know as much about our dress code history as we should, or as much as we think for that matter.
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. What you will read in those books is just – out with it now – just the Yankee rules. It’s ok for them to have their rules, but here in the South, ours were always different.
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. Mark Twain did. 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 Northerners 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, the place where I live – Point Clear on Mobile Bay -- 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. My correspondent in Charleston reports that a man dressed in all white, especially if any of it is patent leather, tends to be called there “full Cleveland”. 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. There are wonderful photos of Winston Churchill in a white suit, often wearing his favorite white panama Stetson in the “Open Road” pattern; you know, the pattern which in gray was worn by LBJ and by every single graduate of the Colorado School of Mines. But whites in London? A British judge told me once that, years before, he looked out his office window one summer day and saw his boss wearing a white suit and white panama hat in London, and that he involuntarily exclaimed at the sight “A Panamanian ponce!” [“ponce” of course being English slang for procurers for pay of the favours of exceptionally fast females].
The second exception to the White Shoe Rule is “The Yacht Exception”. I am not 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 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 ducking skiffs 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 Northerners, 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 Northerners have mostly called “Memorial Day” [earlier perhaps “Decoration Day”], which is now of course the last Monday in May.
But then that’s Northerners. Both my ancient memory and my research confirm 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 Deep 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 and where I grew up in Alabama, 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, fusionists like L.Q.C. Lamar in John F. Kennedy’s book Profiles in Courage, 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. Easter was it.
My theory is 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 goal posts from Easter to Yankee Memorial Day, are just one small part of the general Yankee-fication of America. National Public Radio, no less, reported that Texas singer “Kinky” Friedman, late 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.
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 often a totally separate and clear rule for straw hats, and it certainly wasn’t Yankee Memorial Day, which was far too late to switch to straw hats in the Deep South or anywhere. 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 all kinds of things. “Straw Hat Day” in Pennsylvania was when Penn played baseball against Princeton on the second Saturday in May; some people say in Philadelphia Straw Hat Day was on that second Saturday, and some say on May 15th. Surprising numbers of people dogmatically declare that May 15th was and is and is to be “National Straw Hat Day”, as if President Coolidge or somebody had so decreed. Well, not so fast. There wasn’t ever a “National Straw Hat Day”, and there isn’t now; there was always a whole lot of local option in the deal and in the deep South it tended to be earlier. We had a “Straw Hat Day” in the cities in Alabama where I grew up, and surely in many other towns, but it was not May 15th; instead, it was both a moveable feast and a changing target. The Mobile Register on April 10, 1912 ran this story suggesting that in the late 19th century “Straw Hat Day” was April Ninth:
A number of the old veterans of the Veteran Volunteer Firemen’s Association enjoyed a banquet given at Dauphin and Jackson streets last night. Formerly the ninth of April was a day of great festivities in Mobile. The firemen pulled out their engines and paraded with them amid the acclamations of the entire populace of Mobile and music furnished by bands.
The day was the day recognized as the beginning of spring and straw hats and spring frocks made their appearance and general celebration was indulged in. This custom was in vogue up to the year 1888.
[We presume that the “veterans” part meant “veterans of The Late Unpleasantness”]. What do you suppose happened in 1888 to change this tradition? Well, in 1888 the first paid professional fire department was started in Mobile, which killed this celebration.
So what took its place after 1888 with respect to straw hats? Likely nothing in Mobile, between 1888 and 1931, other than fashion chaos. In 1915 in Jacksonville, Florida, the Mayor and Police Chief declared a “Straw Hat Day” and almost caused a revolution, and apparently they dropped it. In the twentieth century, after 1931 anyway,“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 [or “Holy”] 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 in the City Archives was in 1931.
Why was it in 1931? Well, it’s hard to say for sure, but one clue is that the local paper, the Mobile Register for March 7, 1931, 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 uncertainty of the proper beginning day for straw hats in March of 1931–sounds to me like the first day of Spring on March 20th or 21st tended to be the date to most people – prompted the male populace to demand that the Mayor set a clear official 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 baseball 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. “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 to felt hats, on some designated day after Labor Day which was proclaimed by the Mayor. Generally this was called “Felt Hat Day” and nationwide it tended to be on September 15th. In warm and humid Mobile it tended to be a little later, about the beginning of dove season. In Montgomery where I grew up, that day was called “Anti-Straw Hat Day” and back in the 1920s it was September 15, which we self-employed people now commemorate instead as a day to pay the Internal Revenue Serve its quarterly tax payment. In Montgomery on one such Anti-Straw Hat Day in the 1920s Montgomery Mayor Will Gunter issued this proclamation:
Whereas the weather has been dry and the pastures burned up and the supply of roughage for the cows, mules, and horses, as well as goats and sheep, has been exhausted, now therefore I, Mayor W.A. Gunter, Jr., do hereby proclaim that these animals will be authorized to attack anyone found wearing a straw hat on the streets today or hereafter and such citizens are at their own peril and must defend themselves without recourse to the police department or other guardians of the law. – W.A. Gunter, Jr., Mayor
[The Montgomery Advertiser reported that the next day the Mayor showed up at the office in his straw hat and told the reporters that “he was going to risk the cow’s designs upon his headgear until next pay-day came around, through force of necessity”.]
And, it’s worth noting in passing – since it is clearly forgotten by most of us– that back before air conditioning became general, there were official Mayoral proclamations banning suits and coats in the daytime in the summer, beginning about July 1st. Apparently in Mobile around which I live and work, 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”. In Tuscaloosa, Alabama in the mid-1950s, the Mayor in the third week in April “proclaimed the opening of the sport shirt, straw hat and sport shoe season for the comfort of the city’s male population”, some three months before they did that here on the coast.
Now, why in the world was all of 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. 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 indeed on a Southern street. So did a man who even recognized Yankee Memorial Day, for that matter.
But these rules seem to be moving fast. Friends – those 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 must be a Yankee. Which is ok. But let’s just recognize the possibility of diversity on this question.
Thank you David!
Thank you David!