When I was a kid, pretty much every woman I knew wore an apron when in the kitchen or elsewhere in the home. My maternal grandmother wore one almost all the time. The apron wasn't just to protect her dress and to wipe her hands on, it carried all sorts of things; fruit and vegetables from the garden, fresh-laid eggs, pegs from the line, wood chips for the fire. When visitors came the apron would be whipped off, or if it was dirty, she'd pop on a fresh one. She had maybe a dozen aprons, some workaday, some pretty.
My mother, who was a professional woman, would get home from work, walk into the kitchen, put on an apron and get to work. She also had a number of different aprons, from the ones that covered her dress well, to pretty ones made from worn-out old dresses.
Me? The truth is, I hardly ever put on an apron from one month to another.
I own precisely three aprons — one of mum's, a pretty flowered thing that I remember her wearing and keep for sentimental reasons, one an apron—more like a pinafore, actually—that my sister sewed for me many years ago and which I actually use when I do use an apron, because it covers me from neck to mid-skirt length. The third apron is one a group of us had made up for a book launch of a collection of short stories that included recipes. Here we all are in our Sizzle, Seduce and Simmer aprons.
Is the apron a dying artefact?
For centuries, aprons have been an essential piece of clothing not only for women, but for anyone doing a messy job and needing their clothing to be protected. Butcher's apron anyone? Mostly they'd be made from some sturdy and practical fabric.
Mostly aprons were woking women's garments, made of sturdy, washable linen or cotton, but for fine ladies who passed their time in craftwork—embroidery for instance—or for working women who worked in fashion but in the public eye (as in this picture of a millinery shop) the apron might be made of silk, often black silk, which showed up all the colorful little snipped-off threads, and which slipped easily off silk, instead of clinging to the fabric of their day clothes.
But for women, aprons have never been purely practical. Even when an apron was made from recycled fabric, like an old dress, women still wanted to look pretty, so some were embroidered and made with fancy edging and frills and whatnot. Here's a pretty, embroidered vintage apron from this site.
Some aprons were made purely for decorative purposes — a fashion statement. Consider this 18th century dainty muslin and lace apron — it wouldn't protect her from a fly. It's there to look pretty and whimsical and fun.
The classic white-over-black maid's uniform came in during the Victorian era — before that servants wore ordinary clothes, and a lady's maid would wear her mistresses cast-offs.
The lovely white lace-trimmed apron over the black maid's uniform shown at right was designed as much to show off that she was an upstairs maid and a status symbol to her employers as it was to protect her clothing.
If you look back through the decades, you can see the apron wax and wane in popularity through the 19th and 20th century.
As women took up professions such as nursing, the apron became an intrinsic part of their uniform, or the apron grew to become an overall, and eventually, a uniform.
And aprons for housewives followed fashion. Compare these elegant Edwardian-era aprons with their 1920's counterparts.
After WW2, when women who'd been working outside the home were being encouraged to go back to their kitchens and become domestic goddesses, the apron became tremendously elegant and fashionable and even sexy, and sewing patterns were designed and promoted.
These days? I still see aprons for sale in shops occasionally, and I suppose there are people who buy them. I suspect they're often bought as gifts. Men get given barbecue aprons with funny or cheeky slogans and images on them, and brides might get an apron or two if they have a kitchen tea, but that's pretty rare now. I can't think when I last saw someone wearing an apron — unless it was a man in charge of a barbecue.
Is it because our clothes are not so precious now, and it's so easy to just toss them in the washing machine if they get soiled? Or throw them out and buy new ones? I think that's partly it. Though I think I'd happily wear one of those gorgeous 1920's aprons. Only maybe not as an apron.
So what about you? Do you wear aprons or not? Do you have memories of your mother or grandmother wearing them? Do you think there will be a time when the apron is just a historical artefact.