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Historical Clothing: The History of Aprons

by Leah K. Oxendine  
2/06/2011 / Education

Its different forms vary, stretching from the practical full-length cover-all used by cooks and homemakers, to coverings made solely to protect patients from radiation emitted by x-ray machines.

We know it as the apron, but it's also called the pinafore and sometimes the bib. The list of its uses could go on nearly endless. It has been used for fashion purposes, such as is the case with the dainty half-apron of the 1950's. But when most of us think of aprons, practicality comes to mind first.

Where did this versatile accessory come from? Who wore it first, who "invented" it? Has it always been used by women, and women alone?

The truth is, the apron hasn't been always been woman's thing. Actually, its official wearing by ladies began in the 17th century before that, it was used only by men. Blacksmiths, carvers, leather smiths, cobblers, metal forgers, fish mongers and clock makers were only a few jobs in which a sturdy apron was very useful for both protection and cleanliness.

Many jobs that required working with metals were quite dangerous and a thick, heavy leather apron could protect its wearer's body from sparks and the heat of the flames and blistering metals.

These such aprons were typically made out of heavy leather but also duck cloth or canvas. Some particular early pen and ink sketches of the 13th century show a blacksmith's forge with master and apprentices garbed in aprons. Even though artwork only started to reflect everyday scenes (like a blacksmith's forge) in the high Middle Ages, it is probable that men wore leather aprons in the centuries beforehand.

And what about beforehand? From where have aprons truly come? The first aprons ever cited (from what I've researched) were from the Middle Ages, but the KJV Bible says that Adam and Eve, after realizing they were naked," sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons." (found in Genesis 2:7) So you could say that aprons have been around since nearly the creation of man!
Then there were the Native American men and women, who used aprons for both practical and ceremonial practices.

Now, besides working men, this garment was also used by the Masonic Lodge members, and to the present day, this "secret society" still does. Master Masons don half-aprons decorated with mysterious symbols, letters and encryptions everything, symbolic. But listen to what Mackey's Revised Encyclopedia of Freemasonry says

"....Lambskin or white leathern apron. It is an emblem of innocence and the badge of a Mason: more ancient than the Golden Fleece or Roman Eagle, and when worthily worn, more honorable than the Star and Garter, or any other Order that can be conferred upon is you at this or any future period by king, prince, potentate, or any other person, except he be a Mason and within the Body of a just and legally constituted Lodge of such."
(From Mackey's Revised Encyclopedia of Freemasonry, 1929, Volume I, The New Kentucky Monitor, arranged by Henry Pirtle, 1918)

I have come across several paintings of George Washington, who was a Mason, wearing one of these particular religious aprons.

But aside from men, when did aprons become used by women? Surely their use has not been a recent thing, as most of us know. The apron, for women, seems to have been here for centuries and that is true in many ways.
The actual use of aprons to keep dresses clean began around the seventeenth century, because housemaids, who typically had only one everyday dress, needed a way to complete dirty chores without soiling their clothes.
Thus the apron became very popular, very quick. Aprons took less material to make and were easier to wash than a whole dress. And instead of changing your entire outfit, you could whisk away that old, dirty apron and tie on a clean new one. All in a matter of minutes!

When the wave of French and English colonization began, emigrant families had to face the hardships of frontier life. Ladies were in need of aprons, because they were forced to do harder tasks than dusting or picking flowers for the dinner table. (And who can call picking flowers a task? :) The apron served as a way to carry vegetables from garden to kitchen, kindling from woodpiles to fires, and an "oven-mitt" to handle hot pots and pans with. These helpful coveralls kept bread dough, ashes, even just plain mud, off the front of a dress.

During the 1700's and 1800's, nearly every woman owned at least one apron. No matter if you were the mother, maid or daughter, if you were the average middle-class lady, you worn an apron. Wealthier women had slaves or servants to do their 'dirty work', the work that could ruin their outfits, so, for them, there was no real need to wear an apron. There was the decorative, "frilly" purpose, where daintier pinafores would come in handy.

But for any pioneer woman, homemaker or farmer's wife, aprons were a part of one's dress not just any accessory: they were something which made life a lot easier. In rural areas, aprons were made of common cotton, white linen, or whatever materials were on hand even feed and flour sacks. (this was especially common during the beginning of the 20th century.)

Some fashionable aprons in Victorian England, were more show than anything else being delicately embroidered and stitched.

As the 1920's rolled in, women no longer wanted to be solely associated with the home front and aprons, once a symbol of 'domestic pride', according to apron author Teresa Coats.

And at one point, the half-apron became popular as the full coverall became less esteemed. "Cutesy", "hostess", half aprons were in vogue.

The 40's saw gingham and cheery cotton aprons replace the white ones and for a brief time, there was a revival. Aprons once again became more popular and appreciated.
After WW II, the 'pretty' apron again became the uniform of the happy housewife. Blondie of the comic strip is one such example.

Overall, your apron was a venue to show off creativity, and sort of what you might call "your badge." It was a garment that saluted and celebrated the homemaker. Essentially, the apron became a part of the 1950's professional housewife's uniform. Aprons were usually homemade, with the introduction of the sewing machine and cloth becoming more readily available. Homemade aprons, hand sewn and hand decorated, usually had themes that revolved around housework, sewing, cleaning, or cooking. Besides that, for practicality, homemade aprons were made out of extra kitchen curtains, dish towels, handkerchiefs, and once again, flour sacks. (don't those things come in handy!)

A lady would typically have at least one seasonal party apron, and several aprons color-coordinated to match her outfits.
During the 60's, aprons again reverted to the half-apron, and even aprons with sayings, and bar-b-q aprons for men came about. Ever since the beginning of the1900's, they have fallen 'in style' and out. At one time, they could be popular, the next month they'd be "out" as far as fashions went. One style would be "in", while another got pushed to the backburner.

While their original purpose was to meet a need, they evolved into a novelty item, and an accessory. But even still, there are many aprons today that are still made for practical uses. Many professional cooks and chefs wear aprons, and many women and girls enjoy their aprons for the old-fashioned feel and the help of keeping your clothes clean.
The culinary world now offers a variety of cooking aprons fit to bewilder the brain. Here are a few of the most common:

Bib apron named for the way it ties around the neck. The full length kitchen apron typically contains deep pockets and ties around the waist and neck.
Pinafores these aprons took their name from the custom of pinning the apron to the front of a dress rather than tying it.
Cocktail apron the short, sassy and impractical half apron, typically made of gauzy material and associated with alcohol drinking and flirtation.
Butcher's apron butchers still use these heavy-duty coveralls. The full length apron, made of heavy material, is often the favorite choice for a chef.
Another kind of half apron-- commonly seen as worn by pioneer women and ladies in the 1800's, beginning at the waist and ending just above the end of a full-length skirt or dress. This kind is one of my favorites, but unfortunately I haven't been able to find one. Likely because these are more 'rare,' being used primarily with historical related uses such as reenactments.

Overall, I believe the apron to be a thing quite useful for ladies and girls. It has proved itself to be quite helpful around our house. Whenever I am about to go bake breakfast or start dinner, I grab my apron. I also like to wear it in the garden.

So, now it's time to hear from you! What is your favorite type of apron? Do you enjoy "collecting" them? Ever tried sewing one? Tell me about it! I'm looking forward to hearing from you!

Leah is a homeschooled 15-year-old, who writes poetry, fiction, non fiction and articles-- Currently writing a historical fiction novel. She lives for her Saviour and True Love, Jesus Christ, and is trying to give her all to Him in everything she does.

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