(A History of Aprons and How They Changed With the Times)
An apron is an outer protective garment worn to protect or adorn the front of a person’s clothes. But, that’s just a dictionary definition. When you hear the word “apron”, what comes to mind? Your grandmother cooking a holiday dinner? Home Economics class? Your husband in the backyard cooking burgers with “King of the Grill” emblazoned across his chest? Aprons are so much more.
Do you know how far back in time aprons can be traced? All the way back to Adam and Eve. The book of Genesis tells how Adam and Eve sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons. Aprons are deeply rooted in history. An Egyptian ruler’s rank was shown in the way his apron was shaped and folded. They could be found as part of knight’s armor. By the 16th century, a person’s social status was represented by how ornate their apron was.
Tradesmen such as carpenters, blacksmiths, tanners, photographers, welders, farriers, and butchers wear them. They were used as part of religious garments. They were a sign of organizations such as the Freemasons. Many national costumes include aprons even though they weren’t part of everyday wear. We think of Pilgrim women in their proper starched white collar, cuffs, and aprons; of Colonial women standing in front of the hearth; of nurses caring for the wounded at field hospitals in the Civil War; of little girls in their pinafores; of a farmer’s wife carrying eggs; of Candy Stripers; of servants; of kids with their dad’s oversize shirt while painting a masterpiece; of Mom wiping away the dirt from your face.
Aprons were made of many different materials – cotton, metal, oilskin, wool, and even feed and flour sacks. Smithies wore leather aprons, X-ray technicians wear lead, heat resistant for race mechanics, and canvas for gardeners.
Aprons have so many uses – carrying, drying, holding hot pots, wiping spills, and griping that lid that was too tight. A hairstylist keeps her combs and scissors in the pockets of her smock. And don’t forget the construction worker’s tool belt – it’s an apron!
Aprons came from the necessity to protect a person’s clothing. Women only owned two or three dresses and laundry wasn’t done as often as we do it today. An apron could be washed or changed more frequently than a women’s dress.
The shape of an apron is reflected by the shape of the fashion at the time. Aprons at the turn of the century were long. Aprons of the 1920’s and 30’s hung loosely without waist definition. During the depression, aprons were made out of feed sacks and flour sacks. They became more fitted so less fabric was needed. Rickrack trim started to appear in the 1930’s. How is this known? In the famous painting American Gothic painted in 1930, the woman has rickrack decorating her apron. During the 1940’s, aprons were made from calico prints. In the 1950’s aprons became more full to easily cover the full skirts of that day.
By the mid 1900’s, cheaper clothes and the modern washing machine made wearing an apron less of a necessity. Suddenly, during the 1950’s and 60’s, aprons became fashion. This was the time of the homemaker and aprons were the uniform to reflect that. They were gingham, floral, embroidered, sheer, and embellished with rickrack, ruffles, and ribbon. Mothers and daughters wore matching aprons. Grandmother, who had that special spot where she kept her aprons, wore her best apron for company. Wasn’t there always a spare apron for the aunt who wanted to help with the dishes? The aprons changed with the seasons and the holidays. They started to reflect the feelings of the now educated woman with funny sayings.
This was the beginning of the apron fading away. Women’s Lib was gaining steam and women saw the apron as a symbol tying them to a lifestyle they were trying to change. More and more women were working full time outside the home and it was no longer fashionable to wear an apron.
Theresa Bedal, a journalist said, “Among the objects we take for granted in our kitchens, the apron ranks somewhere along with teacups and scissors.” Now considered collectibles, aprons are classified as “retro” and “nostalgic”. Maybe they are. Aprons represent love, security, stability, and simpler times. Apron pockets not only hold tissues, they hold memories, too.