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History of Clothing: Aprons - Practical and Decorative Fashion Classics

Dolores's interest in fashion history dates from her teenage years when vintage apparel was widely available in thrift stores.

"In the Living Room" by Berthe Morisot.

"In the Living Room" by Berthe Morisot.

An apron is a garment worn at the front of the body since ancient times for practical, decorative, as well as ritualistic purposes. From the French word 'naperon,' meaning a small tablecloth, aprons have been worn to protect garments, and indicate status. Aprons can depict the rank or a group affiliation of the wearer and have appeared as cultural icons. They are back in vogue, convenient, and retro-chic.

Aprons are often the first garment made by someone learning to sew. They can be simple and tough, or delicate and attractive fashion accessories.

Aprons can be made of cotton, muslin, linen, canvas, leather (a blacksmith), rubber, or lead (X-ray technician).

At the end of this article, you can view a video that will show you how to make an apron.

Child wearing a pinafore.

Child wearing a pinafore.

Types of Aprons

Most aprons tie at the waist.

  • A half apron is a small piece of fabric that extends from the waist to mid-thigh or longer.
  • A full or bib apron covers the chest and ties or loops behind the neck and ties at the waist. Slip-on aprons are like hospital gowns or a backward, sleeveless shirt.
  • Cross back aprons feature straps that cross at the back and come over the shoulders. There are no ties.
  • A pinafore is an apron that features more fabric over the shoulders than a conventional full or bib apron. Pinafores often include decorative ruffles, or 'wings' of fabric, above the shoulder. Often worn by little girls, a pinafore is worn for work, to protect a dress, and worn as an attractive garment that can be trimmed with ribbons or bows.

Though the pinafore is a garment of the past, pinafores are familiar to us through classic characters such as the famous doll, Raggedy Ann, and in John Tenniel's famous illustrations of Alice in Wonderland. Dorothy wears a blue and white gingham apron in the Wizard of Oz.

Aprons were worn by workers in the fields during the Middle Ages.

Aprons were worn by workers in the fields during the Middle Ages.

Aprons Through the Ages

In artistic depictions of ancient people, there seems to be a fine line between an apron and a loincloth.

In ancient Crete, aprons were worn by the fertility goddess, and sacred aprons were worn by Assyrian priests. Egyptian pharaohs wore jewel-encrusted aprons.

In Europe, during the Middle Ages, aprons were worn by homemakers, working people, tradesmen, and artisans. Distinctive aprons could indicate a man's trade. English barbers wore checkered aprons. Stonemasons wore white aprons to protect their clothing from the white dust created by their tools on the stone.

Cobblers wore black to protect garments from the black wax used on shoes. Butchers wore blue stripes. Butlers wore green aprons. Blue was commonly worn by weavers, spinners, and gardeners.

Aprons are still worn in Masonic ceremonies and are often part of a working person's uniform, often featuring a corporate logo emblazoned on the front.

Early American Botanist John Bartram wearing an apron.

Early American Botanist John Bartram wearing an apron.

By the 16th century, aprons became a fashion statement and were attractive and embellished with decorations. As a fashion, the wearing of aprons has waxed and waned in popularity over the years.

Native Americans wore aprons for both practical and ceremonial reasons. The early American colonists are often depicted wearing aprons. In the old days, people owned few garments and had to protect and keep them as clean as possible.

Paintings often show subjects wearing aprons to signify a specific type of work. Women are shown wearing aprons to depict warmth, practicality, homeyness, sentiment, and hospitality.

Donna Reed as the quintessential American housewife wearing an apron.

Donna Reed as the quintessential American housewife wearing an apron.

Apron as a Cultural Icon of the Mid 20th Century

Though aprons had long been popular and often included in a picture of a homemaker, the late 1940s saw the apron become the icon of the American housewife as a domestic goddess. After the horrors of World War II, people who grew up with the privations of the Great Depression welcomed the simple aspects of home life and family. It must be remembered that during the war, as well as during the Great Depression, families were often uprooted and separated; many were never seen again. A simple, well-run home with an intact family seemed like paradise.

The apron became the symbol of family, mother, and apple pie ideals. Aprons signified a cozy kitchen, and enough food for everyone. This uniform of the American housewife could be plain and practical, fun-themed and kitschy, or sheer and ruffled for dress or hostess duties.

Mass-produced aprons featured kitchen themes, the fabric printed with pots and pans; spoons; toasters; and other kitchen items. Homemade aprons were a popular use of fabric remnants and made welcome gifts or sale items at church bazaars. Homemade aprons could be decorated with ruffles, contrasting fabrics, rick-rack, trim, or handkerchief pockets.

Special masculine aprons were made for the man of the house, the master of the grill at family cookouts. Aprons for fathers depicted outdoor grills, spatulas, and written statements about Dad's grilling talents

Norman Rockwell illustration of woman in apron.

Norman Rockwell illustration of woman in apron.

The Apron Falls Out of Favor

In the late 1960s, the idealization of housework fell out of favor. Aprons were suddenly viewed as old-fashioned garments worn by grandmothers and fuddie-duddies. The very idea of being a housewife seemed dull and ordinary as women reached outside the home for satisfaction and reward.

Aprons remained a staple of the workplace as a means of protecting garments. Aprons were also worn as a kind of work uniform, and of course, by people who worked in the food trades—meat cutters, waitresses, and cooks as well as hairdressers and barbers.

The Revival of the Apron

In recent years, the lowly apron has made a comeback due to several cultural factors.

The increased popularity of cooking and the back to the kitchen movement brought aprons back in a big way. Between cooking shows on the Food Network, and a new appreciation for quality meals made from scratch, the apron is once again used for practical reasons. Full aprons with extra long ties (that go around the back and tie at the front), and aprons made of sturdy fabrics gained popularity.

The rise of the craft movement created an interest in handmade aprons, both full and half aprons. Once again, homemade aprons show up at church bazaars and are popular sale items on Internet craft sites like Etsy.

An interest in retro fashions and the vintage look has induced young women to take an interest in old-fashioned style aprons. Pattern companies offer new versions and reprinted versions of vintage styles.

As the popularity of the apron has increased, the humble garment has often become decorated and made beautiful. Fashionable boutiques like Anthropologie offer handsomely made aprons, created by using several different attractive and often unusual fabrics with whimsical decorations.

The apron has been around for a long time and has seen several incarnations, most of us have several—for cooking, for craftwork, or for holidays. They are, and will probably remain practical and sentimental favorites—totems of craft, hard work, with a bit of showmanship thrown in for good measure.

© 2011 Dolores Monet


Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on July 04, 2020:

Hi Jessie - from the 1500s to the 1800s, boys between the ages of two to six through seven wore dresses. Breeching occurred when boys transitioned to wearing trousers. During the time boys wore gowns or dressed (for simpler toileting)

they occasionally wore pinafores to protect their garments.

Jessie Powers on July 01, 2020:

I Have a question i know girls had aprons how about boys

Evelyn Zak on August 25, 2017:

I am interested to know more about pinned aprons. Recently I was asked why people pinned aprons in Victorian:Edwardian times, my Breton Gma pinned hers. Is it the style of apron? I know 18th century ladies maids pinned theirs just because they needed pins but why not buttons or a loop? Curiosity...thank you!

Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on May 24, 2011:

Hi, Ethel! Aprons here in the US are kind of big right now. Maybe it's the food movement and the idea that people are returning to home cooked meals. Aprons are almost a fashion statement with some people and pop up in boutiques - expensive and way to pretty to actually use. I like the word 'pinny.' I read about that when doing my research. Called a pinny because they used to pin them on. Thanks!

Ethel Smith from Kingston-Upon-Hull on May 23, 2011:

In the UK aprons are hard to come by but they are making a slight comeback. Artists and chefs still use them but most homes no longer house an apron or pinny as we used to call them

Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on May 23, 2011:

ethel - well the bra might be history but I could not do without an apron. I have several. Between cooking food, making soap, and other messy occupations, my clothes would all be ruined! Thanks!

Ethel Smith from Kingston-Upon-Hull on May 23, 2011:

Interesting Dolores. When I was a kid all the mums and women wore aprons, often all day. As they became liberated I guess they burnt them along with their bras :)

Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on April 15, 2011:

Hi, Dusty - well you are living large! So many people waste their time on this earth. You seem to have grabbed life by the horns to experience so much. You are the man!

Hi, Nancy - so sweet that your dear grandmother made you a little apron! I suppose that meant a lot, a wonderful memory. I could not do without an apron. I am a slob. The flour flies! Thanks!

Nancy's Niche on April 14, 2011:

I really enjoyed reading this article! My grandmother made me an apron so I could help her in the kitchen. She always insisted on aprons and for good reason --- less clothes to wash after cooking…

50 Caliber from Arizona on April 14, 2011:

Dolores, I've hammered out many a knife and reshaped worn horse shoes. I like making things out of old railroad spikes like knives and axes. My shoulders are torn up and swinging the hammers has slowed me way down. I built a punch press to do the hammer work and like a dummy I sold it and need to make another, but I'm slowing down but still wear leather when welding and that spatters every where with a wire feeder too, thanks dusty

Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on April 13, 2011:

Hi, Dusty - are you really a blacksmith? How cool is that! That molten metal is so messy!

50 Caliber from Arizona on April 13, 2011:

Great hub, and we blacksmiths still wear our leather aprons to keep flying molten metal from making us cuss, LOL dusty