White Shoes, Straw Hats

April 13, 2010

By attorney David A. Bagwell, Esq.

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 white 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 till Memorial Day. Most of these people seem unusually certain that they know what they’re talking about.

My answer to them is that they have gradually become – apparently unkowingly, I’ll charitably grant – the pawns and tools of the general Yankee-ification of America. I full understand that this is a serious charge, but as Martin Luther said, “Here I stand; God help me, but 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 fivolous to to speak of the rules of fashion, but even during war, 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 have gotten in to Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority because she wore white shoes in Texas at the wrong time of year? I’m convinved that a lot of people misunderstand all this white shoe 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 source on fashion which might mention it, will say that you cannot wear white shoes or straw hates 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 – the Yankee rules. In the South, ours were always different, unless we are morphing into Yankees, as some of us are.

Of course, nobody should wear white all 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, 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 Mark Twain went to a copyright law hearing in the Capitol – December in Washington, mind you – wearing a suit of white wool flannels, not linen. But the ruckus he raised by wearing white in Washington landed him in stories in newspapers across the country. Of course, his point about copyrights was in the articles too, which just goes to show you that clothing can not only make a fashion statement, it can help you get your substantive statement 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 on him.” But if you aren’t 71 and you aren’t Mark Twain, and it isn’t 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 the White Shoe Rule, no matter what the starting date is.

One exception is The Southern Resort Exception. At any Southern resort, like Boca Granda 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 1930’s wore white shoes all winter, on the apparent theory that Tuscaloosa is a Southern resort, which is clearly twelve points off true north.

What’s a Southern resort anyway, outside of Boca Grande or Palm Beach? Well, probably the place where I live – Point Clear, on Mobile Bay – barely qualifies as a Southern resot, although locals don’t wear white shoes in the winter. What about Charleston and Savannah and Mobile? Well, maybe, but that’s pushing it. Here on the Gulf Coast, in the winter the “snowbirds” from Michigan and Ohio and Canada wear shorts all winter while visiting here – and shiny nylon jackets which say things like “UAW Local 312” on the back – but snowbirds are what we lawyers call a “lesser included offense.” To an Englishman, any place that’s warm and not raining at that moment is a Southern resort, which is precisely how HRH 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 certain of the breadth of this exception, having never owned a yacht and all, but I think that, weather permitting, you may always wear white clothing 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 winter, doesn’t she? And speaking of the late Princess Margaret, since the British royals have sent the Royal Yacht Brittania to the scrappers, I just don’t know where they wear their whites, other than in Dallas in a pinch, I guess.

The picture on my wall of Commodore Vanderbilt on his yacht – and before the “Late Unpleasantness” his was the biggest 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 the winter. What’s a yacht? Well, to paraphrase J.P. Morgan, “If you have to ask…” I do know that none of my little canoes and duckskiffs and kayaks and motorboats and rowboats is a “yacht,” and so I mostly 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 shoes or suits or pants unless you meet one of the exceptions. It’s just the beginning date of 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 shoes or pants or skirts until what Yankess call 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 of the White Shoe Rule. Remember that Easter was the day that boys got new white linen coats, if their parents could afford it, and white shoes? They didn’t wait till Memorial Day.

That Easter, rather than Memorial Day, was the starting date of the White Shoe Rule is not surprising for two reasons. One, the South obviously gets hotter earlier than the North does. Second, what we now call Memorial Day was set up after the end of the Civil War to as a memorial to Union soldiers, and where I grew up it was called Yankee Memorial Day. Here in Alabama, the Federal workers got a holiday on Yankee Memorial Day, while the State workers got a holiday on Confederate Memorial Day, which 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, lese majesty and all that! So, Easter it was.

Now admittedly, this fashion stuff was mostly higher-income people in the first place, and whether or not the date was observed by the man plowing the mule I just cannot say for sure. [Editor’s Note: Any man “plowing” a mule was likely strangely looked upon for reasons more serious than the timing of his fashion.] But I can say for sure tha a man who wore white shoes on Yankee Memorial Day looked pretty strange on a Southern street. Or, a man who even recognized Yankee Memorial Day, for that matter.

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 till Labor Day, on clear days anyway, and being reasonable about it (like, “OK at garden parties but not at funerals”). Suit yourself, but if you don’t agree, you may well be a Yankee.

David Bagwell lives and practices law in Point Clear, Alabama and has his own “white shoe” law firm in Point Hope. In almost six decades he has never lived outside the South, although he once spent most of a year travelling around the world on a Fellowship to study international business, during which time he almost always wore a suit.