Until her son was born two years ago, Kym Chambers never thought she could wear all-white outfits. “I’m clumsy and make a mess of things,” she said. But during a postpartum shopping spree, Chambers stumbled upon a “really great white jumpsuit” that changed things.
“After my son was born, I just started wearing white from head to toe,” Chambers, who lives in upstate New York and runs the online store Chambers Vintage, told The Daily Beast. “White is usually associated with virginity, but here I was with a child wearing virginal white. I really loved it; I embraced it.”
It’s not easy to feel put-together as a new mom, but the color scheme helped. “I felt fresh and I knew I looked great,” Chambers said. She embraces a little stain here or there.
“I have white Levi’s that have paint stains on them, white overalls with some stains,” Chambers added. “I have a white jumpsuit I’ll pull out every once and a while. If it gets dirty, you just bleach it.”
Chambers admits there are some “practical aspects” to consider when going for the monochrome look. “You might wear it, leave the house, decide to have a glass of red wine—and then you’re done,” she said. “For me, it might not be pristine, but I don’t care.”
Few trends are as timeless, and timelessly controversial, as summer whites. There are the devotees like Kylie Jenner, who fearlessly put it on even to pump gas (hey, a girl’s got to find some way to stand out against her orange Lamborghini). There are the “I could nevers,” who cite visible panty lines or grass stains as deterrents. And then there are the “Well, maybe I could” converts like Chambers, who keep the style fresh.
Erik Maza, the style features director for Town & Country, has been thinking about summer whites a lot lately. The magazine’s June issue spotlights the “casually elegant style” of Lady Gaga on the set of House of Gucci, currently filming in Italy.
“One [behind the scenes] picture in particular caught our eye, and it's Gaga in a lace white dress, dripping in jewelry,” Maza said. “The secret to wearing this style, our writer concludes, is the very Italian notion of sprezzatura: Summer dressing shouldn't try too hard; it should be effortless. Which is incidentally how I dress during the summer.”
Maza is “partial to white denim,” and recommends off-white Rag & Bone jeans for both men and women, which he’ll pair with a Hanes T-shirt. “I’m not quite channeling Gaga,” he said. “[But] one of the perks of a Hanes T? It’s easy and cheap to replace if you spill something on it.”
Town & Country’s summer issue also recommends a white lace midi dress “by the upstart London label Chopowa Lowena” for those who want to mimic Gaga’s costume. (“The designers Emma Chopova and Laura Lowena make their one-of-a-kind dresses from unwanted traditional fabrics from Bulgaria, Chopova’s home country,” Maza said.)
“A white blouse by Carolina Herrera is a classic for a reason,” Maza added. “The young New York-based designer Kingsley Gbadegesin, a first-generation Nigerian-American, makes excellent rib knit tank tops that can be paired with off-white denim from New York's Rag & Bone; or anyway, those are two of the pieces I've got in my wardrobe at the moment.”
Maza grew up in Cuba, and wearing white was a way to stay cool in the heat. “A man’s guayabera in linen or cotton is both a practical and elegant fashion statement,” he said, referencing a type of formal summer shirt.
Marisa Petrarca, Grazia’s senior beauty and fashion editor, lives in New York but was raised in Rhode Island. “As someone who didn’t spend my childhood sailing in Newport, I can’t say that shaped my appreciation for all-white outfits,” she said. “Admittedly, all-white clothing makes me think of my college sorority’s ritual nights.”
So Petrarca still reserves all-white for “going out” looks. She prefers one-pieces like rompers or jumpsuits. “I’ll team that with strappy heeled sandals, gold accessories, and a neutral-colored handbag,” she said. “As for making sure it stays clean, there’s always that ‘what if?’ You need to go into the day being less risky than usual—like a vodka soda over Pinot Noir at dinner.”
Petrarca also prefers off-white outfits over ivory ones. “A little more forgiving in case you miss your mouth when taking sips,” she added.
All white clothing has long been stereotyped or perceived as a wealth-flex. It started with Marie Antoinette, who infamously posed in a breezy white cotton dress, called a robe de gaulle for a 1783 portrait by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. According to Racked, the gown was meant to counter her image as a lavish spender and compulsive shopper.
But the dress also sparked a backlash—the look was perceived as too lowly for a queen. It also looked like a slip. But as the Fashion History Timeline noted, “numerous factors went into its creation and upkeep that were anything but simple.” The fabric was imported from India, which was expensive, and it was tough to keep clean.
And so you must be rich to wear white clothes, or so the stereotype goes. But there are other connotations, too. Look up any picture of Kamala Harris in an ivory pantsuit, and you’ll quickly see it dubbed “suffragette white” and described as a nod to first-wave feminism. Both Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wore similar white outfits on their first day of work in the Capitol.
“It just became a personal choice of expression,” Chambers said. “I do think that eventually, style has become not about what you can afford but how you could put the thing together and how you can break a rule.”
Chambers, who is Black, added that when she first started wearing white a lot, “I did like the way it looked and contrasted to my skin tone. But there wasn’t politics behind it, it wasn’t an idea that I was putting forth by wearing white.”
“There are so many places you can take the idea of wearing white,” Chambers added. “You think about baptisms and the American south and people wearing white to church. I’m not going there. I just feel that I look great from head to toe.”
James Aguiar, the vice president of creative and fashion director for Modern Luxury media, said that all white is “the chic way to peacock,” especially during a post-vaccine summer, when everyone wants a little extra attention.
“It’s always been a showoff thing,” Aguiar said. “Think about sailors in the Navy—they have their dress whites, and it’s about prestige, respect, and caring about how you look.”
Maza, the T&C editor, takes a more life-friendly approach. “Clothes are meant to be worn, not treated like museum pieces,” he said. “They might get dirty, they might become stained, they might take a few hits from summer outings with friends. Wash, rinse, repeat. And befriend your local dry cleaner—they’re likely to need the business after a year when no one was going out.”