If you’ve grown up in the south, chances are you grew up hearing that you never wear white before Easter. True GRITS (Girls Raised In The South) hold fast to that tradition. Ever wonder where the rule came from?
While there’s no definitive explanation of the practice, theories abound. The white-before-Easter rule is probably more prevalent in the south because we cannot reliably count on the calendar to tell us that seasons have changed. I certainly remember putting up Christmas decorations in shorts and t-shirt, and tanning by the pool in mid-February. So here we need other guidelines to tell us when to swap out our wardrobes. And to keep the seasons—and wardrobes—more evenly divided, we wait till after Easter to switch to white.
Other accounts point to class distinction in the origins of the tradition, going back to a time when the wealthier upper class would go on holiday for the summer. They marked the transition in residence with a transition of wardrobe, to white. The working class grunts stayed behind in their same drab outfits, probably because dark colors more easily hid the dirt and the efforts of their labors. And as time went on, the rule emerged to inform the nouveau riche, who knew to display their wealth with a light and frivolous wardrobe but not exactly when to do so.
Interestingly, in more northern climes, the rule sometimes cites Memorial Day as the transition date rather than Easter. Some historians note, though, that that date never caught on in the South for a couple of reasons. First, Memorial Day was originally set aside to remember the Union dead at the end of the Civil War. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the holiday was changed to honor all soldiers who died in military. So southerners would never use that remembrance to mark the change to white. And probably more importantly, by Memorial Day, we’ve long passed springtime and are well on our way to midsummer, climate-wise, wasting a lot of good white-wearing days.
Today the rule has definitely relaxed, and in fact some authorities claim it only ever applied to shoes and not the rest of the wardrobe. Some say fabric is more the determining factor of the acceptability of white than color so that, for instance, you could wear white wool or other heavy fabrics long before white linen. And while I may concede to wear a white sweater or shirt in March, you won’t see me in white pants or sandals till after the bunny comes!