White: Physics and snobbery

3 Sep

primary colours make white lightWhen I was in Theatre school studying design, I got a good rounding of other theatrical tasks and took classes in stage management, performance, and sound and lighting. I learned a lot of things during the lighting class and developed an understanding of light and colour as frequency. I also learned how to make white light out primary colours. White is a combination of all light frequencies, so focusing blue, red, and green lights in one spot gives us white light. This experience was the beginning of my fascination with colour. (For more information on light frequency, see this page from NASA.)

White as a reflecting colour

From a light perspective, if we think about light and how it changes throughout the year, it makes sense to wear either reflective or absorbing colour depending on what season it is. In the spring and summer, there is bright, warm light and it makes sense for us to reflect light away from us which keeps us a bit cooler, while in the fall and winter, we have cool and limited light that we want to absorb to keep the heat in, so we wear darker colours. (A psychological link seems to exist as well, as we mimic the natural world.)

White is sleek, clean, and classic; we can all envision basic white but there are many, many whites, some cool, some warm,  some with coloured undertones. If you’ve ever looked at paint chips to decide on a room colour, you may have been surprised to see just how varied white can be.

types of white

Believe it or not, these are all considered white. Notice the variations between colours. From Benjamin Moore’s 2015 white collection.

White, along with black and grey, are considered neutrals, and will mix well with other colours of the same level of warmth or coolness. Warm-skinned people will do well in warm – red or yellow-tinted – whites (cream, oatmeal, eggshell white), while cool-skinned types look best in cool – blue or green-tinted – whites (ivory, stone, oyster, silvery white). Notice the subtle differences in cool and warm whites below; you may also see that warm whites advance and cool whites recede slightly:

warm whites

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

cool whites

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

White after Labour Day

The Labour Day argument can be a source of confusion for those of us in the Western world. We’re not truly in autumn until the fall equinox which falls the third week of September, so theoretically, we shouldn’t fret about wearing white after Labour Day. This tradition, once fiercely defended, is not longer a sticking point – many of us wear white into the fall which is perfectly acceptable.

The “white season” is an American concept devised by rich white women after the American Civil War. This sartorial snobbery was created to differentiate between the wealthy and the common; people who could afford multiple seasonal wardrobes and those who could not; white was for those who were lucky enough to enjoy resorts, cottaging, and summer holidays between Memorial Day and Labour Day. According to TIME, wearing white after Labour Day was impractical in cooler and rainy fall weather and by that time of year, it was time to return to the more formal attire of city living anyway.

Modern society likes to break old rules, including the not-wearing-white-after-the-September-long-weekend rule. Depending on where you live, September can still be very hot (it certainly is in Toronto) and dark colours wouldn’t be appropriate – hot weather still begs for light colours even at the end of summer. White should still prevail into the fall when the temperatures start to drop and we can get snuggily in deeper, richer whites that lend an air of class and elegance.

Maybe that pompous when-to-wear-white rule does have a basis: white is one of the more elegant colour options no matter what time of year it is, so go ahead and don’t be afraid to indulge in the classic brightness of white.

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