On this weekend of Mother's Day I thought I would explore the mundane life of the apron and the rich stories they often tell about the wearer. It is a piece of apparel that has almost disappeared from the daily modern wardrobe, however, they have a rich and varied history and I bet you have an apron story somewhere in the recesses of your memories. In fact, I bet somewhere among your belongings there might even be some aprons that were worn by past generation too imbued with memories to discard. Every apron tells a story; of the wearer, the time and the countless chores and moments lived. Follow me over the fold for a few of mine.
As a little girl I was often dressed in pinafores; a sort of bib apron to protect my clothes or dress up and outfit. There is a picture of me all smiles at ten months with a starched pale blue organdy pinafore of which my sister, though twelve years older, wore a matching mate. This was at the end of WWII - a much different time.
The pinafore was a type of apron that was pinned over the dress and easily removed for washing. Buttons were frequently damaged with lye cleaning products, which was one reason why dresses were not laundered very often. The pinafore had no buttons, was simply "pinned on the front" which led to the term "pinafore." Pinafores may be worn as a decorative garment by girls and women as well as a protective apron. WIKI
In my earliest memories of my grandmother, she was adorned in housedresses with clashing aprons of another fabric pattern. These were not aprons for show, but serious work aprons that nearly completely covered her housedress. Large pockets on the side of the Bib Apron contained a dust cloth smelling of cedar in one pocket and a fresh-pressed, lavender-scented hanky in the other. She was prepared and didn't take life lightly.
The 30's and 40's styled aprons gave way to the Kitschy half-apron. My mother eschewed the smock and bib style aprons for the flirty fifties de rigueur version of the half apron. I remember she went through a spell of cross-stitching gingham in geometric patterns all across the hems. She had several in different colors all piled in a drawer with embroidered tea towels that I had made when learning that craft years before. The kind made from Aunt Martha's iron-on transfers bought at the dime store along with a hoop and thread. Days-of-the-week and teapots and flowers were all the rage. I learned my backstitch, daisy stitch and French knots just like most of the young girls my age. Our mother's endured our less than stellar efforts at the craft for years to come until they wore out.
In seventh grade all girls were required to take sewing and cooking. The first sewing project after hemming a tea towel was to make an apron for when you started the cooking class the following semester. Mine was of a sturdy cloth in a bib style that covered all. Anybody else ever remember learning to make 'Eggs ala Goldenrod? Yep, I've never repeated that recipe either.
When I grew up and got married my household 'uniform' was jeans and a sweatshirt so I never had much need for aprons in the kitchen as my denim covered thighs dried my hands all too often. My mother had died before I became a mother so I inherited her collection of aprons that languished in a drawer somewhere. I remember cooking my first Thanksgiving dinner (which you read about here)) and digging out one of the old aprons to keep from destroying my dress before serving dinner. Along with feeling completely over my head with that meal the apron reinforced a sense of 'playing grown-up' at that task.
I did use my grandmother's clothespin apron when I hung out acres of diapers and miles of sheet and towels in those early years. I miss the ritual of walking up and down the lines with a wet rag to clean them before hanging the clothes. I would load a stack of diapers over my shoulder and go rapid fire down the line. I also had her front-slit needlework apron for many years, but never used it. She used it to carry her tatting around for when she had those spare moments to sit and tat. The yards of tatting adorned pillowcases and other household linens.
My dad gave me a wraparound smock one day that gradually became an all purpose covering for yard and shop chores. Over the years it was covered with spatters of various paint colors used about the house, streaked with bits of stain and the occasion crust of wood putty or Spackle cemented to the fibers. It was a strange shade of green to start with and made of 100% cotton. I wore it to frayed pieces and it felt like giving up a part of my history when the seams gave way and cried 'uncle'.
My husband knew how much I love that wrap around smock so he set out to find a replacement. Times had changed and polyester was 'in' so the new model he found didn't have the softness and warmth. The virgin garment had no history and for a time I tried to keep it pristine, but with the sorts of things I did around the house and shop that didn't last long. Soon it had its own patina of memories and now hangs on a hook behind a door in my son's laundry room. Long out-grown, I passed it on to him years ago. The first time I saw it there I had a little shock and had to go over and pick it up for a closer look. I looked at the patchwork of splatters and smears remembering all the rooms I painted, furniture and instruments I finished and sloppy chores I had done in that smock.
As I got older and outgrew the wraparound smock I searched for a new 'uniform cover'. I found a pattern for a tabard-style apron and took my limited sewing skills in hand and produce many of a double-sided version in two fabrics with contrasting large pockets. I liked that style as it was not tied tightly as with so many styles and my form had softened to the point of not liking things too fitted. My narrow waist and slim hips were but a distant memory.
After a few people had seen this style of apron and liked it, I started to crank out all sorts of versions and variations for family and friends as gifts. I re-cut my pattern out of heavy brown paper in different sizes so it would last the rigors of repetition. Searching for fabrics to match the personalities or interests of the recipient was a lot of fun. But in time, I ran out of friends and family to give them to.
My sister made me a simple vest one day for a gift and it quickly became my new 'apron' of sorts. It was a soft teal-color corduroy that here again, I wore until the wales disappeared and the seams began to give way. It then became a standard birthday gift when she saw how much I loved not only the garment, but that she had sewn it for me. I called it my 'hug' for that is what it felt like when I wear it.
About that time I started to become interested in historic apron patterns. This was before the Internet made searching for things so easy so it took awhile to sleuth out vintage patterns. For you I have made it easy with the link provide below. I have a small collection of patterns that I would love to try out and a three-year old granddaughter who is just the girly-girl to enjoy them. You should see her serve at a tea party! So once again, I will have someone to lavish my limited sewing skills on.
I may not wear an apron like my grandmother's, but I have always had some sort of covering throughout most of my years from pinafores to vests. I may never find that perfect apron pattern for me, but the search sure has been fun!
Some History of Aprons
In the 1800s households produced most of their own goods. Women’s aprons at that time were part of the dress code of a homemaker. They were used as carriers, towels, potholders and fire fans. Due to industrialization in the late 1800s many tradesman also wore aprons for work purposes. In the early 1900s housewives were provided with running water and other luxuries that are referred to today as necessities. With the "extra time" woman gained time to sew aprons which became much more decorative.
In the 1920s people were feeling optimistic financially. Affluent women wore half aprons that were elaborately decorated. Aprons were made of a variety of fibers from silk and linen to full aprons made of cotton. The full aprons, dubbed "Hooverettes" hung loose with no definition, as was the style at this time in the history of the apron. At this time apron kits that came with the fabric and embroidery patterns included were popular. During the depression aprons were used for hard labor, excluding the richest women. Fabric was expensive to buy so aprons and clothes of the era were cut close to the body to save fabric. Some women sewed aprons from everyday household items such as towels, feed sacks and flour sacks.
When World War II ended the apron had come into its own as a symbolic uniform for women. As women were forced out of their wartime jobs they embraced the apron and all that it stood for. During the following baby boom years being a homemaker was considered a legitimate and respectable occupation. During the fifties aprons flourished.
The apron remained popular until the early 1970s. At that time the era of the domestic diva had ended. More women were waiting to get married and start a family choosing instead to focus on careers and life outside the home. The apron became a symbol of the limitations women faced. By the 1980s aprons all but disappeared except for the utilitarian apron.
Some Fun Resources:
Slide show of vintage apron patterns.
Pages of vintage aprons for sale.
Pages of antique feed sack fabric for sale.
Pages of vintage apron patterns for sale.