“Apron” means an over-garment covering the front of the body (from the French naperon, a small tablecloth). For centuries, people worldwide have worn them as protective garments, as ceremonial indicators of marital and parental status, rank and group affiliation, and as decorations.
Cretan fertility goddesses and Assyrian priests wore sacred aprons. Egyptian rulers broadcast their status by wearing jewel-encrusted aprons. In Europe during the Middle Ages, women placed extra swaths of cloth in their laps to protect their skirts during rowdy communal meals, and tradesmen and artisans began wearing aprons to protect their clothing and their flesh. In fact, tradesmen in general were called “apron men,” as aprons were so common that several trades boasted distinguishing styles. Gardeners, spinners, weavers, and garbagemen wore blue aprons; butlers wore green; butchers wore blue stripes; cobblers wore “black flag” aprons for protection from the black wax they used; and English barbers were known as “checkered apron men.” Stonemasons wore white aprons as protection against the dust of their trade, and even in the twenty-first century, aprons survive as part of Masonic ceremonial attire. In contemporary South Africa, young women wear beaded aprons to celebrate their coming of age.
By 1500, decorative aprons had become fashion accessories for European women with lifestyles permitting such luxury and display. Their popularity waxed and waned over the centuries. By the time colonists settled in North America, aprons were firmly established in European women’s wardrobes.
United States Aprons
Aprons were worn by some Native American women and men, for both practical and ceremonial reasons. Through the centuries, colonial immigrants and their descendants have worn functional aprons for work, while decorative aprons have fallen in and out of fashion.
Looking back just one century, from 1900 through the 1920s, well-heeled women wore ornate, heavily embroidered aprons. In the 1930s and 1940s, women working outside the home wore whatever protective garments their jobs required, including coveralls, smocks, or aprons. At home, they worked in full-length aprons with hefty pockets.
In the United States in the early 2000s, many people consider aprons 1950s kitsch, but aprons deserve more serious and thorough consideration than that. Many aprons are fine examples of textile craft; and most importantly, aprons are icons — symbols within popular culture. They conjure twin images: the mythology of motherhood and family in the cozy, homemade good old days; and the reality of the endless hard work those times required. Through a blend of individual and collective memory and fantasy, aprons have come to represent an idealized, apple-pie, June Cleaver-esque mom. Cartoonists adorn a stick figure with an apron to communicate that she’s a mom and probably a housewife. Though this character is a manufactured stereotype, she has held great sway as a role model — often wearing an apron.
The heyday of this archetypal housewife — and U.S. women’s aprons — was the post war era of the 1940s and 1950s. Rosie the Riveter lost her well-paying job, and the media and government — thus the job market — encouraged her to be a housewife and mom. Sewing machines and cloth became available, and aprons — both commercial and homemade — became ubiquitous as the uniform of the professional housewife. Many 1950s aprons addressed housework and were decorated with sewing, cleaning, cooking, and “mom” themes.
This apron-wearing housewife served as family hostess and wore decorative serving aprons for holidays. She wore a more utilitarian model while in the kitchen getting things ready, but right before she entered the dining room, she donned her holiday froth. Commercial aprons were certainly available, but many holiday aprons were homemade. Not only were they made by the housewife herself, but they were also the stuff of church and neighborhood bazaars, often made of netting and festooned with ribbons, sequins, and felt. The at-the-ready hostess had at least one all-season party apron. In fact, if possible, she had several to match her outfits. They were flashy and flirtatious and often sheer. Aprons were common hostess gifts, as well.
The postwar archetypal housewife was practical and creative. She made aprons out of remnants, extra kitchen curtains, dish towels, handkerchiefs, and flour sacks. When she made her aprons, she considered design as well as function. Many handmade aprons from the 1950s have one-of-a kind designs and details.
The apron-wearing mom collected souvenir aprons — from maps of every state to “Indian aprons” that bore slight if any resemblance to authentic ethnic garb. At home, when she had “had enough,” she donned her letting-off-steam apron that said, “The hell with housework,” or the one that pictured a frazzled washerwoman and the caption, “Life can be beautiful.” And in the 1950s, when “the man of the house” was back from the war, he was supposed to spend weekends at home, so “men’s” aprons printed with barbecue and bartender themes became available.
By the early 1960s, the era of glorified housework was passing and with it the heyday of aprons. But aprons are still worn. At-home kitchen aprons have evolved into the unisex butcher/barbecue style. And aprons are filling a new at-work role as “the instant uniform.” An apron tied over any assortment of clothes produces a consistent look for a fast food chain or discount store. Generic aprons are shipped in from Central Supply and stamped with corporate logos, and gone is the variety, the visual delight, and the individual expression that aprons once provided.
Aprons can reveal a lot about women’s lives. Examining a store-bought apron found at an estate sale or antique shop may yield information about the time from which the garment came and the woman who bought and wore it; and besides meriting study as a handcrafted one-of-a-kind item, a homemade apron may also contain clues about the life and times of the woman who made and wore it.
HOW OLD IS THAT APRON?
If a woman gives you the aprons she’s been saving all these years, talk with her about each one. When did she sew or acquire it? For what sorts of occasions did she wear it? For anonymous aprons, however, apron dating is both art and science.
Look through old magazines, catalogs, or patterns to find aprons like yours. Look at the apron’s shape. What dress style is the apron designed to cover? Once you’ve determined dress shape, look for pictures of vintage clothing to identify your apron’s decade. Check the fabric. How old is it? Study any decorations. What techniques and materials are used for embellishment and when were they in vogue? Note the colors. Colors pass in and out of fashion. If the fabric has a printed picture, check hairdos, clothes, appliances, furniture, or any other clues. If it’s a commercially made apron, check the label for clues.
Barber, Elizabeth Wayland. Women’s Work. The First 20,000 Years, Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1994.
Cheney, Joyce. Aprons: Icons of the American Home. Philadelphia: Running Press, 2000.
____. Aprons: A Celebration. Philadelphia: Running Press, 2001.
Florence, Judy. Aprons of the Mid-Twentieth Century, To Serve and Protect. Atglen, Pa.: Schiffer Books, 2002.
McKissack, Patricia. Ma Dear’s Aprons. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.