Nobody seems to know for sure how the practice started, but there are a few theories about why “whites” made sense. In fact, the International Brotherhood of Painters and Allied Trades, posed the same question to their memberships.
One advantage that just about everyone could agree on is that white connotes cleanliness. A painter, after all, removes dirt and crumbling plaster before applying paint. Many painters compared the purity of their “whites” to the uniforms of nurses, chefs, and bakers. Philadelphia One painters theory is that a white uniform is like a badge that says, “There’s no paint on me, so I’m doing a my job.” Obviously, it is as hard to hide paint smeared on a white uniform as it is to hide a ketchup stain on a chef’s apron.
The white uniform is also a sign of professionalism, one that distinguishes painters from other crafts people. In the early twentieth century, nonunion workmen tried to horn in on the painting trade. These workers, usually moonlighting, wore blue overalls or other ordinary work clothes not related to the paint trade. By contrast, The “real painters” certainly looked professional in there white overalls, white jackets, and black ties.” Even today, most professionals prefer crisp white uniforms (even if they’ve shed the tie), while odd-job part timers might wear blue jeans and a T-shirt.
Of course, a color other than white could still look clean and professional. And at first glance, white seems like precisely the wrong color. By wearing white, you “broadcast” any color you spill. True, but remember that the majority of the time painters are dealing with white paint. And what other color uniform is going to look better when splattered with white paint?