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Winter white for holiday fashion is fresh and bold

Winter white is chic in a wool crepe pantsuit and totally cozy as a furry vest under the mistletoe. It dazzles as a platinum gown, and when white shows up as a stripe on black satin tuxedo pants, it's a pleasant surprise.

Winter White is bright and chic. (Michael Wirtz / Staff Photographer)
Winter White is bright and chic. (Michael Wirtz / Staff Photographer)Read more

Winter white is chic in a wool crepe pantsuit and totally cozy as a furry vest under the mistletoe.

It dazzles as a platinum gown, and when white shows up as a stripe on black satin tuxedo pants, it's a pleasant surprise.

There are so many ways to wow wearing winter white. It's bright. It's bold. And it allows you to break some rules - that Labor Day deadline myth just won't go away - while still appearing angelic.

"White sizzles when people realize they don't have to be so precious about it," said Alina Alter, owner of Aoki, an off-the-beaten- path Rittenhouse Square boutique. "White embraces the beauty of winter."

The most colorless of colors is at the height of a cold-weather comeback, as high fashion gets reacquainted with 1960s-style pastels this winter. Of course, white is queen of that pale domain.

We saw designers gravitate toward the clean hue during the fall 2012 runway shows: Stylist Rachel Zoe created a bunch of ivory layered looks. Jil Sander's heavy satin dresses sparkled in frosty silver.

Phillip Lim built his tuxedo-themed collection around a milky base, while Philadelphia-bred Ralph Rucci fashioned trapeze dresses, sheaths, and pantsuits from bleached sandy crepes, velvets, and furs. Derek Lam paired cloudy tunics and marshmallow coats with shiny black bottoms, giving the pure shade a rocker edge.

"We saw white wools and jacquards," said Nicolle Keogh, fashion editor for, which reports on the luxury world. "These fabrics are usually reserved for the darker hues, and now we are seeing wintry, bold, head-to-toe white outfits."

Fashionable snow bunnies can use those heavier textures and varying shades to re-create looks from decades of white inspiration.

There was the furry by-the-fireplace stoles Jean Harlow wore in the 1930s, and the white-hot satin gowns Lauren Bacall donned in the 1950s.

This winter's forward-thinking looks borrow from 1960s visionaries such as Frenchman Andre Courreges, who created an all-white collection worn by dark-skinned black models to spotlight the contrast.

And don't forget those white gowns made fashionable in the '70s by Star Wars' Princess Leia.

"We want things to be simple, yet we are optimistic," said Clare Sauro, curator of Drexel University's historic costume collection. "With white we get a clean palette; we get to start over." That yearning for a do-over is reflected in designers' white collections.

So if white can do all that, how did it get trapped in the dog days of summer?

Back before there were washing machines or dry cleaners, white was the color of the rich - they were the only people who could afford to keep it clean.

"White was a sign of conspicuous consumption," said Madelyn Shaw, a Rhode Island-based textile historian. "It was such a debutante kind of shade because it took so much to keep pure white clean."

Come Labor Day, aristocrats put white clothes away - the impetus for one of fashion's most boorish rules - because those wood-burning fires would sully the light-colored linen in a way that not even a cleaning staff could remove.

Then, at the turn of the 20th century, white was a perennial shade reserved for young women who had a special evening to celebrate.

It's not clear when the term "winter white" came about, Shaw says, but it likely is a reference to animals such as ermines and snowshoe hares that grow white coats during winter months.

During World War II, soldiers mimicking those animals wore "winter white" uniforms as a form of camouflage - what was probably the first link between winter white and apparel.

Fashion magazines of the moment adopted the term after the war, and by the late 1940s, Christian Dior's suits and sheaths were teeming with woolen white looks.

Winter white was slightly popular during the 1990s' minimalist period, but the shade took a backseat to black and metallics during winters of the early 2000s. Then came January 2009, when first lady Michelle Obama wore a flowing, ecru off-the-shoulder Jason Wu gown to the inaugural ball.

Crisp white gained steam in February when both Gwyneth Paltrow and Claire Danes wore stunning structured gowns by Tom Ford and J. Mendel to the Oscars. And some of our favorite television characters, from Olivia Pope on ABC's Scandal to Alicia Florrick on CBS's The Good Wife, are currently wearing a lot of winter white.

"This season, Alicia wore an ivory Dior wool suit accentuated with a knockout asymmetrical peplum," said Daniel Lawson, costume designer for The Good Wife. "I use winter white on her when I need her to stand out and be noticed."

Eager to wear white this season? Make it skinny ecru cords and a frothy white sweater. The mix of shades and textures will give your white a now feel.

Scared that white will make you look wide? Accessorize with a crystal beaded bag, diamond-studded Lucite bangles - or even a little black frock. Try a cream sweater dress over leather leggings. And you can't lose with a winter white wool coat.

And remember: Now that white has been freed from its old-school rules, enjoy white all year long.