Interested in the history of aprons?
Following is a talk on apron history presented by my daughter, Lisa Parker-Meredith of Mission Viejo, CA, at the annual Spring Tea of Sigma Alpha Sorority Eikostos Deuteros Council Saturday, March 19, 2011, at Woodbridge Village Association, Irvine, CA. Aprons were the theme of the fundraising event. With her partner Debi Purcell, Lisa designed and markets a line of 50’s aprons under the name of PurPar Hollywood Aprons. If you would like to learn more about PurPar aprons, please leave a comment requesting info with your email and/or phone contact.
Here’s a link to the March 19 event:
A History of Aprons
Although they can be very attractive, aprons are basically utilitarian garments. They’re designed to protect you – what you’re wearing and sometimes your body as well – from whatever work you happen to be doing.
But where did aprons come from? And why did they change sex after originally being for men?
The English word “apron” comes from “naperon,” the old French word for napkin or small tablecloth – and one of the earliest references to aprons is found in the Bible – about Adam and Eve in the 3rd chapter of Genesis – quote – “and the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.”
We know that aprons were used in many ancient religious rites for delivering burnt offerings and animal sacrifices – both of which could mess up a priest’s ceremonial robes. On wall paintings of ceremonies in ancient Egypt, individuals are seen wearing a triangular apron with the point upward. Similarly, in China and Central America, some ancient figures of the gods are shown wearing aprons. In 600 AD, we see pictures of Japanese warriors wearing apron-like thigh protection.
More familiar to Europeans and Americans are the ceremonial aprons worn by the Freemasons, a fraternal order that arose in the late 16th Century. Of course, since medieval times, working masons had used aprons to protect their clothes – as had butchers, blacksmiths, weapons-makers, and other craftsmen. These aprons were often made of leather and were long, coming below the knees, with a flap or bib to protect the chest.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, according to one source, apron colors even indicated the trade of the wearer. English barbers wore a checked pattern; butchers and porters wore green; masons wore white. That’s still somewhat true today if you think of a grocery clerk with a green apron or a chef with a white one.
But even though men still wear aprons at work – in the home, the apron has become a garment for women. So much so that we negatively refer to a boy being “tied to his mother’s apron strings.” However, there is one notable exception. In the words of the humorist William Geist –
That outdoor grilling is a manly pursuit has long been beyond question.
If this wasn’t firmly understood, you’d never get grown men
to put on those aprons with pictures of dancing wienies….”
So when did the apron become primarily a female garment?
Probably in the 1700’s for household servants and working-class women. However, we hear much more about aprons in the 1800’s – and we begin to see middle-class women wearing them. That’s when the all-over apron became popular for a woman who wanted to work while wearing her good clothes. It was seamless with armholes that fit loosely over her dress and it was tied in the back at her waist and neck. Think of the pioneer mother.
Another familiar apron of the 19th Century was the pinafore, “pinned” to the clothes of young girls – think of Alice in Wonderland.
At the turn of the 20th Century, according to Cheryl Miller’s article, “Aprons – A History,” matrons in Victorian England were the first to wear aprons – elaborately-stitched aprons – as decorations, not because they really needed to wear them. Thus, aprons began to take on an added meanings of class.
When the 1920’s roared in – with American women just having gotten the vote in 1920 – some women no longer wanted to be solely associated with the home front, and aprons went briefly out of favor, bringing yet another symbolic meaning – feminism – to the apron story.
During the Depression, in the 1930’s, fancy fabrics were in short supply, and ladies embellished simple aprons with embroidery. Usually, these were full aprons that hung loosely like the fashions of the day without a waist. The WWII years found homemakers still facing short supplies. They continued to wear aprons around the house but these were usually hand-crafted and quite plain. Often, the homemaker would wear one apron for preparing food in the kitchen, then change into a crisp, clean one to sit down to dinner with the family. Her nicest aprons were rarely soiled because she wouldn’t have worn them while cooking.
Following the war, colors exploded, and brightly-colored checked aprons became part of family life. Gingham was the most common fabric, often embellished with cross-stitch embroidery or other trim such as rickrack.
America was ready for the “golden age of aprons” – the 1950’s!
This age would later revolt my mother and her feminist generation, who saw aprons as symbols of domestic bondage and stopped wearing them in the ’70’s and ’80’s (no matter how stained their clothing might become while at the stove). As a result, aprons were almost forgotten.
Later, in a new millenium – and comfortable with ourselves as “liberated women” – my business partner and I were inspired by the “golden age of aprons” because we saw ’50’s aprons for what they really were. As described by Judy Florence in her book, Aprons of the Mid-20th Century – “Frilly, lacy, sweet, and sexy…(these) aprons defined a generation of happy housewives and hostesses.” And, she continues – quote – “Today these…finely home-crafted garments are sentimental favorites, evoking memories of Mom (or) Grandmom…and they are highly sought-after by designers and collectors of household linens.”
Although they could be purchased in stores, ’50’s aprons were usually homemade – often from patterns sold through the newspaper. And they no longer had to be “full” or “bib aprons.” This era saw the introduction of the half-apron” or “tea apron,” disparagingly described by apron writer Cheryl Miller as “cutesy…half-assed and half-hearted…almost a phoney nicety…an ‘I’ll wear it if you insist’ sort of apron (that) hardly protects your upper half from…flying grease.”
Well, my partner and I didn’t feel that way about half-aprons. We liked both kinds – and we searched out patterns and fabrics from the era to make our American-made ’50’s aprons as authentic as possible. We loved them because they reminded us of home, femininity, and fun.
There is, in fact, a frank sentimentality about aprons that is well expressed in the poem Grandma’s Apron, usually quoted as “author unknown” although it may be based on a similar poem by Tina Trivett. Even from a ’50’s perspective, it’s sentimental, but it tells a true story, and I’d like to share it with you now.
I don’t think our kids know what an apron is.
The principal use of Grandma’s apron was to protect the dress underneath. Because she only had a few, it was easier to wash aprons than dresses and they used less material, but along with that, it served as a potholder for removing hot pans from the oven.
It was wonderful for drying children’s tears, and on occasion was even used for cleaning out dirty ears…
From the chicken coop, the apron was used for carrying eggs, fussy chicks, and sometimes half-hatched eggs to be finished in the warming oven.
When company came, those aprons were ideal hiding places for shy kids.
And when the weather was cold, grandma wrapped it around her arms.
Those big old aprons wiped many a perspiring brow, bent over the hot wood stove.
Chips and kindling wood were brought into the kitchen in that apron.
From the garden, it carried all sorts of vegetables.
After the peas had been shelled, it carried out the hulls.
In the fall, the apron was used to bring in apples that had fallen from the trees.
When unexpected company drove up the road, it was surprising how much furniture that old apron could dust in a matter of seconds.
When dinner was ready, Grandma walked out onto the porch, waved her apron, and the men-folk knew it was time to come in from the fields to dinner.
It will be a long time before someone invents something that will replace that ‘old-time apron’ that served so many purposes.
Grandma used to set her hot baked apple pies on the window sill to cool.
Her granddaughters set theirs on the window sill to thaw.
They would go crazy now trying to figure out how many germs were on that apron.
I never caught anything from an apron…But Love.
Well, here we are today, celebrating aprons – and it’s just the right time. As aprons have reappeared in American life, they’ve brought with them the inevitable American marketing blitz to get them sold. Which has resulted in the Monday after Mother’s Day being designated as “National Wear Your Apron Day.” This year, it’ll be May 9.
So in a few weeks, on the day after Mother’s Day, when you dutifully tie on your apron – think about what a long and colorful history these practical – and beautiful – little garments have had – and why we all love them so much!