Just when I thought that my one apron, Old Faithful was all I needed, I found a cute vintage garment I call Miss Priss, the perfect apron to fulfill my Apron Dream… But more about my Apron Dream anon.
What in fact is an apron? Only the most ancient of garments—in some people’s minds, maybe the Original Garment. The dictionary defines apron as: A garment used to cover a part of the body or protect one’s clothing. As such it is mentioned prominently in the first book of the Bible. It is recorded in Genesis 3:7: “And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.” Not exactly their proudest moment, but it does indicate that Adam and Eve were a) inventive, b) modest. And that the first clothing ever worn was an apron.
There are, of course, other meanings for apron:
- A garment similar to an apron that is worn as part of official dress, as by a bishop or Freemason.
- A sheet of lead worn to shield the body during an X-ray examination.
- A small area adjacent to another larger area or structure.
- A hard-surfaced area on an airfield used for maneuvering or parking aircraft.
- A projecting strip of stage for playing scenes in front of the curtain.
- An area of asphalt where the drive of a house meets the road.
But here we will concentrate on its first and by far most familiar meaning: a garment designed to cover a part of the body or protect one’s clothing in work situations or even, occasionally, for adornment. In many ancient cultures, statues of gods, goddesses, priests, and priestesses were depicted wearing aprons like those invented by Adam and Eve, designed cover the private parts, but far more elaborate, not made of leaves but fashioned with beads, gemstones, and precious metals.
The apron evolved in European cultures as a practical garment purely for occupations, mostly for men, and became a way of differentiating those occupations. Men still do don aprons for work, even the most macho of men—those who play with fire in the occupation of welding and smelting, men who cut meat, men who cook bar-b-q. Some chefs wear aprons that reach to the ankles. In Japan, sumo wrestlers wear a sort of loincloth with an apron-like flip-front. Native American and African tribesmen have traditionally worn the same flip-front covering, which some scholars (yes, there are apron scholars!) believe to have been a first garment—a theory that finds scientists in rare agreement with Biblical experts.
The wearing of aprons, in Europe and later in America, gradually became synonymous with being in trade. Men who worked with cement dust wore white ones, and cobblers who worked with shoe polish wore black ones. Leather aprons protected those in rough professions, and heavy cloth kept blood and gore off the bodies and clothing of butchers. Later, up to the current day, aprons may signify the strata of jobs. Wait staff may only need a simple waistband with pockets for pen, tablet and straws or napkins. The lowly dishwasher must have a full coverage apron with no pockets, denoting the physical nature of his or her tasks. Similarly, nurses’ aides may wear a child-like pinafore while registered or licensed nurses graduate to uniforms, scrubs, or crisp jackets.
In the world of women in industrialized countries, the over-all apron construction—a yoke (the part that circles the neck), a bib over the chest, and a skirt, made of light to heavy-weight fabric depending on the work being done—became common attire for housekeepers, nannies, and nurses. Some aprons had long sleeves. Victorian English women, who wore numerous layers of clothing to conceal their unmentionable body parts—such as—gasp—legs—added yet another layer, the apron, either bibbed or starting at the waist, to protect everything underneath from splatters, spills, and speculation.
Aprons made by women for women gradually grew stylish. Sashes were fluffier, decoration like rickrack strips and even lace was added, small almost useless but cute puffy pockets appeared, and some pinafore style aprons became almost a dress, but still worn to cover another dress.
By the 1950s, aprons were enjoying a widespread vogue. Most “stay at home moms” (and most moms were staying at home in the 1950s) wore them; they wore practical ones until Daddy came home, and then they donned what were shamelessly called “flirty” aprons to dish out Daddy’s dinner. This transformation was aptly expressed in an apron history book whose subtitle says it well: Aprons of the Mid-20th Century: To Serve and Protect (A Schiffer Book for Designers and Collectors) by Judith Florence. This useful book reminds us that aprons, like the retro one I fortuitously found in a thrift store, are among the most sought-after icons of the twentieth-century cloth art. Aprons may incite sexual fantasies (what is under all those ruffles?), or, paradoxically, remind us of home and Mom and Grandmother. They may keep ladies from ruining their clothes, and keep women in their place—chained to the stove, at Daddy’s beck and call.
Mother’s apron has infused itself in our folklore, its strings tightening around certain of us, binding us to home and maternalism. It is the apron strings that keep some young men from pursuing potential wives by constantly pulling them back to Mommy Dearest. “He never married because he was tied to his mother’s apron strings.” It’s an old, old notion and as likely to be true now as it ever was. “Cutting the apron strings” is synonymous with gaining one’s independence, taking charge of one’s life. At its best, apron says home, hearth, and happiness. At its worst, it says servitude… of man over mate and mate over offspring. Amazing, isn’t it, to think that a single garment holds such portent.
After the early 1960s, when Women’s Lib emerged in the mainstream of American culture, the apron began to lose its resonance among the fair but unfairly-treated sex. It never disappeared entirely, however, and nowadays, though both genders wear aprons, there is still a notable gender gap in apron use. Women may wear aprons designed for men, but men typically don’t wear women’s aprons (though they may if they wish).
These days, women may choose to wear aprons at home. It is no longer required, and though aprons are still sold and sewing patterns for every kind of apron are still available, aprons are not a fashion item as they were in their heyday. One difference between mid-20th and now is that women are no longer “chained to the stove,” and so they spend less time in the kitchen. Meals can be put together quickly and often from prepared ingredients, with less chance of spilling and soiling. Except for special occasions, the kitchen is no longer a woman’s automatic go-to place. And houses stay cleaner with constantly improving cleaning products and machines. A woman doesn’t have to get dirty while making her house sparkle.
Unless that woman is a homesteader, maybe living off-grid, maybe a prepper trying to get back to the basics of food conservation. Homesteading women (and men) need aprons! They take more time preparing meals from scratch and have fewer machines to help in the cleaning process. Another obvious justification for the apron for thrifty homemakers and conscientious homesteading women is to protect their smaller, more sensible wardrobes. Even tough work clothes need to be cherished, and not thrown in the wash tub after every little spill.
Wear the apron, make your own apron, make it from sturdy fabric and keep the pattern to make a few more as time permits and circumstances require.
It’s been pointed out that a woman’s apron does a lot more than just “serve and protect.” As an extra piece of cloth (the original word for apron was napron—a big napkin) it can do so much more. I recall watching my grandmother shell peas—she threw the empty pods in a bucket and dropped the peas in her apron/lap. Once finished, she gathered the apron up like a big sack, strode into the kitchen and dumped the peas out of the apron and into the cooking pot.
There’s a lovely sentimental poem circulating on the internet, written by Tina Trivett, who composed it as a tribute to her grandmother. It brings back memories for some older folks, but anyone who wears an apron can identify with it, now and always:
Grandma’s Apron Poem
The strings were tied, it was freshly washed, and maybe even pressed.
For Grandma, it was everyday to choose one when she dressed.
The simple apron that it was, you would never think about;
the things she used it for, that made it look worn out.
She may have used it to hold some wildflowers that she’d found.
Or to hide a crying child’s face when a stranger came around.
Imagine all the little tears that were wiped with just that cloth.
Or it became a potholder to serve some chicken broth.
She probably carried kindling to stoke the kitchen fire.
To hold a load of laundry, or to wipe the clothesline wire.
When canning all her vegetables, it was used to wipe her brow.
You never know, she might have used it to shoo flies from the cow.
She might have carried eggs in from the chicken coop outside.
Whatever chore she used it for, she did them all with pride.
When Grandma went to heaven, God said she now could rest.
I’m sure the apron that she chose, was her Sunday best.
You can buy aprons in most big general stores (not naming any names here, just sayin’). You can buy them on the internet, or you can make your own as Grandma did. And there’s that box of sewing stuff you keep tucked away for just such an opportunity… it’s been neglected, but here’s your chance.
Making an apron is simple. Though I have a sewing machine, I believe it is easy enough to make an apron by hand-sewing. Our grandmothers and great-grandmothers made them by hand, just like they made quilts and most clothing. Thank about that!
The apron consists of the parts mentioned earlier:
- Yoke and ties can be the same material, ribbon or heavy strips of cloth, the yoke to go around the neck and two ties for the waist.
- Bib can be a small square measured to cover your, ahem, front — to your comfort specifications.
- The Skirt is a rectangle, to cover from halfway around the waist on both sides, and in length, anywhere from above the knee to all the way to the ankle, though knee-length is a norm.
Sewing these pieces together produces a simple homemade apron. If you are lucky enough to have a fabric shop nearby, you will probably be able to purchase a real apron pattern while there, or you can trawl websites like eBay, Pinterest, and Etsy for aprons and patterns more in keeping with what granny used to wear, and tie her children with, symbolically and lovingly, to keep them from straying too far from the safety of home.
I began by talking about my Apron Dream for my dream apron. You can live this dream, too. Here it is:
It’s Thanksgiving (or Christmas, or a big family birthday or anniversary…). Our friends and family have gathered at our modest Mayberry homestead for munchies and music. I labor alone in the kitchen, cheerful and uncomplaining, basting the two turkeys, stirring the steaming rice, calculating the timing for the sweet potatoes, and arranging plates, cups, desserts, and other delicacies on the various counters in our spacious, homey kitchen. To keep my party dress from harm, I am wearing my time-worn apron, Old Faithful, a red and white checked cover-all that reaches from shoulders to dress hem and all frontage in between, to keep all splatter-space safe from foody funkiness.
Then, at the exact appropriate time, I slip out of Old Faithful, gently depositing it in the washing machine, and bring out the newfound treasure: I call it Miss Priss, a concoction of delicate white cotton with red floral embroidery gracing both the bib (the top panel) and the skirt (the lower, wrap-around panel), with ruffles on the edges. Then, assured of the happy reception my news will garner, I invite everyone in the music room to come to the kitchen, where guests will marvel at the transformation of the kitchen into a dining fantasy world. We will say grace around the big oak dining table. Guests seeing me adorned with ruffles and flowers, will not know that I didn’t do all the greasy, sweaty work in this confection of a covering; they will marvel at my ability to cook and serve a variety of tasty dishes while keeping such a choice garment spotless.
And that was my dream. To look domestic, competent, dedicated… but spotless and cheerfully attired at the same time. I graciously accept all compliments that come my way.
Secretly, I thank the apron.