Aprons have almost become an item on the endangered species list, although in recent years they have made a slight fashionable comeback.
In the beginning, however, aprons were anything but a fashion statement until about the thirteenth century, at least in drawings or art of those periods.
Fertility gods and goddesses wore aprons in ancient, ancient times. They were ceremonial aprons that bore symbols of a meaningful nature. They were different in their shape and pleated in various ways that denoted status or rank. Egyptian rulers wore aprons that were jewel-encrusted.
Through the Middle Ages, AD 500-1500, meals were yet eaten with the hands, diners grabbing at the food and carrying to the mouth, dripping all the way. Women especially put a swatch of cloth on their laps to protect their clothing, a kind of apron.
Not until the most recent of times were fabrics easily washable. For centuries cloth was a precious commodity, hand woven until steam powered mills came on the scene and even then fabric was not easily taken care of ... Washed by hand on a washboard, hung to dry—slowly. Most people had only one or two changes of dress so aprons served an important role in protecting the wardrobe.
During the Middle Ages aprons had begun to emerge as symbols of trades and business. For centuries there was a descriptive phrase that identified tradesmen and that was “Apron men.” Blacksmiths, for instance, wore leather aprons to protect themselves from the hot, flying sparks that came from their pounding the red hot metal on the anvil. Sometimes the smithy wore two aprons—one front, one on their backs to cover their necks and head ... Two hides would be used. A hide could be fitted so an extension would serve as a bib to more protect their chest and torso.
Tanners wore a heavy, thick sheepskin covered with a leather apron also. The sheepskin absorbed the moisture of the toxic chemicals that the tanner used to prepare the animal hides. The sheepskin doesn’t seem like a good idea, does it?
In the evolution of aprons, the color or type of cloth began to identify the trade of the wearer ... Gardeners, spinners, weavers and garbage men wore blue aprons.
Garbage men (or women) actually climbed the piles of garbage and raked through the detritus searching for something recyclable! Butchers wore blue-striped aprons while cobblers wore “black flag” aprons, black to protect the clothing from the black wax they used in making shoes. English barbers were “checkered apron men” while stone masons wore white. The dust from the brick laying mortar was white so it made little evidence if the apron was white, too. The Masonic fraternal order still wear aprons as part of their rituals.
Chambermaids wore blue and white checked aprons except when changing the bed linens then they donned white. Nurses traditionally wore dark colored aprons so they wouldn’t have to change so often!!! But Florence Nightingale wore a white apron for her duties on the battlefield during the Crimean War to set an example of cleanliness. Gradually white aprons and uniforms became tradition. Doctors, too, wore white aprons at first until changing to white lab coats.
Women who worked in textile mills or other such factories where dust and lint were a hazard, wore large apron cover ups with also a scarf over their hair and a piece of cloth over their mouth and nose to prevent their breathing in the awful lint from the weaving process. In some places, it was said a person couldn’t see more than a few feet ahead!
By the sixteenth century aprons had become a fashion statement. Wealthy women wore aprons decorated with lace, ribbons or embroidery to remove any doubt as to their status. In the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries aprons changed in style as often as did the rest of the wardrobe.
In the Victorian Age, counted as 1837 to 1900, the most ornate aprons came to be and many have lasted till today in design but are erroneously called “folk costumes,” among differing European cultures. The folk costumes we see in travel videos were not the everyday wear of the “folk” but were used in celebrating religious holidays, ceremonial observances—and for the tourists! But the vests and aprons worn are delightful in color and pattern and elevate the usually common accessory.
As the many diverse ethnic groups came to America they brought their traditions, music and “costumes” that are celebrated throughout the year for our edification. They make us a true melting pot here in America. Aprons a part of them.
With women entering the work force during World War I, aprons were often a part of the wardrobe in factories, too. Heavy denim replacing organdy or gingham.
New ideas and methods brought on by wartime efficiencies led to new ideas and methods in apron making also. Aprons that needed no sewing was just one. The outline of the apron was stamped on the fabric along with guides to embroider a design on same ... Floral or fruit. Stamped, ready-sewn holes were cut in the waist band where the apron strings would be woven through, they also cut from the swatch of fabric. Voila!!! an apron ... No stitching but the embroidery which was still in vogue ... Needlework as a womanly skill lasted through the twenties and then was lost in the era of Jazz, Flappers and short hemlines.
The Apron Dress was a comfortable alternative to the shaped waist everyday dress. It could be worn over the regular dress or worn alone because, indeed, it was a cover-up even more so than the common apron. The ad here for the store-bought apron dress from the Mercantile in Freeport, surely must have lured the buyer in at those prices!
The illustration of the housewife happily domestic and wearing an apron was an example of how America saw women before and during World War II. That war, too, changed the look of domesticity as had the Great War some twenty years before.
The apron that had carried the symbols of trades and rank had itself become a symbol of womanhood, the home and family.
Again, new methods had changed living conditions ... Nylon, polyester and other fabrics that were easily washed and dried came on the market so aprons weren’t necessarily needed ... Toss clothes in the washer, now run by electricity instead of scrubbing by hand then dripping dry on the clothesline. Minutes instead of hours or days. Women, too, were joining the workforce in droves and where they didn’t necessarily need to wear an apron.
Only the older generation still wore the apron daily as they worked in kitchens like the one pictured here from the sixties. It’s that of my great Aunt Hannah Sell in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. Why it was snapped is beyond me ... Maybe a new fridge?
The colorful tablecloth and curtains? The toaster ready on the table for a mid-morning cuppa and slice of jelly bread? Don’t know but it was a setting in which the lady of the house still wore the apron. A pleasant memory.