Aprons appear to be innocuous garments, simple in design and straightforward in function. In fact, apron design historically mirrors the overall dress silhouette of the day, changing in response to cultural and social factors such as technological innovation, stock market performance, the women’s liberation movement, and times of political upheaval or economic prosperity. Apron styles, materials, and adornments, and the times and places when and where they are worn, reveal information about apron wearers and their social circumstances. Drawing on contemporary sewing patterns, advertisements, and images, this article explores the history of this often-overlooked garment from Victorian England to present-day Canada.
Les tabliers de cuisine se présentent comme d’insignifiants vêtements, simples de facture et faciles d’usage. Historiquement, la coupe des tabliers reflète en vérité la silhouette générale de la robe d’une époque donnée et se transforme selon des facteurs culturels et sociaux tels que l'innovation technologique, les performances boursières, le mouvement de libération des femmes, le bouleversement politique ou la prospérité économique de certaines époques. Les différents styles de tabliers, leurs matériaux, leurs détails, tout comme les époques et les lieux où ils ont été portés, sont révélateurs de celles qui les portent et de leurs situations sociales. Souvent négligées, ces pièces de vêtements, ordinaires et omniprésentes, possèdent une histoire qui vaut d’être explorée.
Aprons appear to be innocuous garments, simple in design and straightforward in function. In fact, apron design historically mirrors the overall dress silhouette of the day, changing in response to cultural and social factors such as technological innovation, stock market performance, the women’s liberation movement, and times of political upheaval or economic prosperity. Apron styles, materials, and adornments, and the times and places when and where they are worn, all reveal information about apron wearers and their social circumstances. These often-overlooked pieces of clothing, ordinary and ubiquitous, have a history worth exploring.
Aprons are ancient garments that predate both skirts and trousers. From the earliest examples, those recorded in Cretan wall paintings and frescoes dating as far back as c.1450 bce, aprons have served a dual purpose, which continues uninterrupted to the present day: to protect the body and to perform a decorative function. In spite of this long history, style changes have been the most dynamic since the industrial revolution, when the mechanization of the textile industry sped up manufacturing processes. This study therefore examines the rich kaleidoscope of changing apron styles from 1850 ce to present-day North America, with a particular emphasis on Canada. Since I will often refer to the ideal body image of various periods, a conscious choice has been made to reflect this through the selection of idealized images of aprons gleaned from popular and material culture, such as mail-order catalogues, how-to manuals, and the illustrations on vintage home-sewing patterns.
The chain of influence is as follows: cultural and social factors affect the image of the ideal body shape, which is quite literally shaped by the clothing and undergarments of the era, which is in turn mirrored in the apron style. For instance, in the 1920s, as women gained unprecedented gender equality, the ideal silhouette was boyish and flat-chested, with no discernible waist. Women’s clothing was long and lean, and was naturally echoed by a flat-chested apron style. By exploring the driving forces that shaped clothing and the apron in the selected periods, we gain insight into the cultural and social lives of the women and men who wore these garments.
We begin our detailed examination of aprons in the Victorian era, specifically 1850. The mainstay of apron-wearers was the woman who took care of a family, whether the family was her own or she worked as a servant in a wealthy home. Victorian aprons were primarily functional garments made of sturdy fabrics such as cotton and linen. Their purpose was twofold. The first was to provide an easily exchangeable covering that enabled a servant to change aprons quickly in order to maintain a crisp, clean appearance at all times. The second was to identify and depersonalize the domestic servant, who had little social status. Uniforms, in which the apron often plays a crucial role, are a method of downplaying the individual personhood of the servant. Although female servants from 1816-20 typically did not wear a special costume in England—which also seems to have been true of Canada—in the latter half of the century there was growing insistence on a new type of uniform: a “light coloured dress with cap and apron for the morning, and a dark dress in the afternoon—contrary to what had been the custom previously.” The wealthier the family, the more impetus there was for uniformed servants. In more modest houses, female servants did not need to wear uniforms beyond the traditional cap and apron.
The style of apron favoured from 1850 to 1908 had a bib that covered the chest, a small waist echoing the popular corseted shape of the day, and a long full apron skirt. Higher echelon servants such as nursemaids and parlour maids were permitted ruffles on the apron shoulder straps, whereas chambermaids and scullery maids were not allowed decoration, in keeping with their lowly station. Ruffles were a mark of status within the servant hierarchy. The starched cotton or linen apron provided coverage for the upper body as well as the skirt underneath, maintaining a crisp appearance.
The apron was particularly important prior to the 20th century because of the labour involved in laundering clothes. Since the majority of North American households did not have running water in 1890, hot water for laundry needed to be brought in from outdoors and heated on the wood stove, and clothing had to be scrubbed by hand. Laundry soap was made by shaving pieces of homemade lye soap, which was caustic to the hands. Even with a washboard, the ridges of which helped users to force laundry soap through cloth, washing clothes required vigorous scrubbing and sustained effort to achieve good results. Clearly, it was easier to wash an apron, which was made of a small amount of utilitarian fabric, than to wash a dress of the same period. The apron was less valuable than the dress, since the apron was easier to make, whereas dressmaking required a high skill level and large amounts of fabric. As a costume designer, I estimate that a typical dress would have required seven meters of fancy fabric like velvet or brocade, whereas an apron would have used only two and a half meters of a less expensive utilitarian fabric like cotton or linen. Because of the rigours of the laundry process, dresses tended to be aired or brushed rather than washed frequently, if they were washed at all. The more expendable apron formed a barrier between the valuable dress and the wet, soapy, dirty laundry process.
Like a servant in a wealthy home, the Canadian pioneer woman had a long day of hard labour that necessitated an apron to protect her clothing. Sandra Rollins-Manusson’s work on pioneer women in the western prairies, focusing on primary sources from 1902 to 1913, sheds light on an average work day for housewives at the turn of the 20th century. The housework that women performed began before dawn. Upon rising before her family or hired help, the housewife donned her homespun woollen apron, stocked the woodstove, and prepared a large meal for everyone before her own workday began. The long list of chores that fell to the farm woman can be summarized as follows: feeding and caring for livestock, providing food for the family table, tending and harvesting the garden, shooting gophers and other garden interlopers, pickling and preserving supplies of food for the winter months, cleaning and preparing game, baking, hauling water, washing dishes, cleaning the home, sewing and mending, scrubbing clothes on a washing board and ironing. Given the nature of these tasks, the apron was an indispensable component of daily dress for the pioneer woman.
By 1910, a shift occurred in the way that housework was viewed, thanks to the popularity of efficiency engineers who began expanding the scientific management principles developed for factories to the domestic front. In 1912, an article by Mrs. Christine Frederick entitled “The New Housekeeping” appeared in Ladies’ Home Journal. Frederick’s plan for incorporating efficiency engineering into kitchen layout by diminishing the amount of steps between areas of functionality instituted many positive changes, and remains influential to this day; many of the principles used in modern kitchen design had their beginnings in Frederick’s experiments in kitchen efficiency.
As kitchens became more scientific, aprons increasingly reflected this move toward efficiency. The simplified apron shape of the early 20th century echoed the looser dress shape of 1910, and was made of a plain undecorated white cotton or linen that was bleached by the sun as it dried on the clothesline. The apron was comprised of a bib with sturdy shoulder straps, a secure waist tie, and a full coverage apron skirt that ended sensibly above the shoe. The apron lost the purely decorative ruffles of the early period.
As women experimented with gender equality and their newfound right to vote (Canadian women’s suffrage was gained federally in 1918), the 1920s dress silhouette became more tubular and boyish. Menswear at the same time took on a feminine silhouette, with a small, nipped-in waist and curvaceous hips, as if to counterbalance the masculinity of women’s wear. Aprons lost the gathered waist of earlier decades, echoing the linear quality of the flapper dress, and in keeping with the overall aesthetic of the equally linear Art Deco style. Coloured prints, contrasting bias-taped edges, and gingham or plaid fabrics were all popular apron choices.
The stock market crash of 1929 and resultant Depression of the 1930s caused serious financial difficulty for many homemakers. Due to fabric shortages, the apron was designed to use a minimum of fabric for its construction, while still providing maximum coverage. Yet aprons remained functionally necessary—so much so that the apron transformed into a garment called the Hoover Apron, which completely covered or replaced the housedress. The Dictionary of American Regional English defines Hoover Apron as “slang for a coverall or house dress with an overlapping reversible front.... the wrap-front dress could be worn until the bodice was dirty and then the overlap reversed to reveal a clean area.” Both in Canada and in the United States, these full coverage aprons were dubbed “Hooverettes” after President J. Edgar Hoover, whom Americans blamed for the Depression. The name was so ubiquitous that the term Hooverettes even appeared in Sears’ mail-order catalogues of the day.
Purchasing aprons in the 1930s was often not a viable option, as they could be made less expensively at home: hard-earned cash was reserved for more critical purchases, such as feed for livestock. Fortunately for the housewife of the day, dry goods such as flour, sugar, and animal feed came in cloth sacks that could be washed and repurposed as fabric to make small items such as aprons. In the 1930s, these sacks were off-white with brand names and/or pictures identifying the product and the manufacturer. To quote The Canadian Housewife, “Flour and sugar sacks were never thrown away: they came in too handy for everything from household cloth to dresses (once the words were bleached out).”
Sack size varied depending on product and quantity. Standardized in the 1940s, feed sacks were approximately the size of a modern pillowcase. Sacks for kitchen staples tended to be smaller; the smallest was a five pound bag of salt. Weave density also differed depending on the product contained in each sack. A flour sack had a finer weave than a feed sack, for instance, because the smaller particles required a denser weave to keep the contents in place. By the 1940s, moreover, manufacturers had begun to respond to this secondary use of their product packaging. According to The Canadian Housewife, “tapping into women’s use of the sacks, manufacturers began making them in a variety of colours, printing flowered patterns on the sacks, hoping this would convince housewives and their husbands to buy their product rather than a competitor’s.”
During the Second World War, the use of feed sacks to make aprons was even considered patriotic. One Cotton Board advertisement of 1945 claimed that making a feed sack apron supported the “nation's effort to conserve and salvage for victory. A yard saved is a yard gained for victory!” The original image used in this advertising campaign came from a 1940s booklet on aprons, which included patterns and cutting and sewing instructions.
Both men’s and women’s clothing of the 1940s was characterized by a severe broad-shouldered look that I associate with bravado in the face of war. Women took on traditionally male occupations like building airplanes, which required masculine clothing, as witnessed by Rosie the Riveter’s coveralls. In contrast to the masculine uniforms of the factories, garments worn within the home were distinctly feminine. The half-aprons of the 1940s provided a feminine counterpoint to work clothing, with refeminizing touches such as heart-shaped pockets on the skirt section, the reappearance of slight gathers at the waist, and gracefully curved or scalloped hemlines. The sensible bib covering of the upper body diminished in popularity as aprons became purposefully more feminine.
While researching this article I came across an interesting social commentary in the form of a vintage McCall’s apron pattern from the late 1940s. During this time, men had returned from the Second World War and were transitioning back into family life. While women had headed their households independently during the war, men had been in the decidedly undomesticated role of soldier; anxieties about returning veterans were therefore a common theme in midcentury literature and culture. The tension resulting from this return is depicted jokingly in McCall’s “Mr. and Mrs. Aprons” Pattern. The pattern envelope depicts a man and woman doing housework together wearing aprons with coordinating cartoon images. The image embroidered on the women’s apron depicts mastery in the kitchen. She is shown baking expertly, taking pies out of the oven with a singing kettle on the stove, and hoisting the perfect pie triumphantly over her head. The image on the men’s apron depicts a rather different persona: that of a bumbling buffoon who has no useful skills in the kitchen. The men’s embroidery transfer depicts three images of the husband, first carrying a full bag of groceries, then wearing a chef’s hat and holding a tray of food, some of which is dropping on the floor, and finally an image of the man mopping the dropped food off the floor. This pattern heralds the increasing popularity of aprons as part of the postwar feminization of domesticity.
If pressed to decide when aprons had their heyday, I would vote for the 1950s: in fact, the perfect fifties woman is still associated with the stereotype of a well-coiffed housewife wearing heels, pearls, and pretty aprons. The reality of jobless men returning after WWII caused fierce social pressure for women to give up their wartime employment in favour of returning soldiers. Simultaneously, a culture was created espousing the importance of the woman’s place in the home, as the primary caregiver for her family. Concurrent with women’s return to full-time homemaking, apron-wearing exploded in popularity and imaginative styling. Aprons were no longer associated solely with the drudgery of housework. If homemaking was recognised as a vital job in the shaping of a happy family, then the apron was the homemaker’s badge of office.
The ideal woman’s body shape of the 1950s included a small waist, shapely childbearing hips and the pointy “bombshell” bosom that resembled the nose cone of a WWII bomb or rocket. There were two prevalent dress styles by Christian Dior designed to show off this ideal body shape; one was the full-skirted dress that we associate so strongly with the 1950s housewife, and the other was a slim-skirted dress that added interest in the tight hip and buttocks area and contoured shapely legs. Dior's “New Look,” introduced in 1947 and characterized by a large bust, small waist, and full, calf-length skirt, was the strongest influence on fashion in the postwar decade. Ironically, Dior was criticized because his designs required large amounts of fabric, which was still not readily available after the war, but was desirable for that reason. Regardless of which style of dress was worn, both were suited to the gathered half-apron cinched by a simple waist tie. This classic apron style covered only from the waist to just above the knee, which left room to emphasize the small waist and womanly hips without hiding the bombshell bosom. The aproned housewife look, so iconic of the time, appeared on television and in advertisements, movies, and novels. American television shows like Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, and I Love Lucy were pervasive on both sides of the border, each with their own version of the lovable mother wearing the requisite apron, signifier of the perfect 1950s housewife.
Hostess aprons were a new addition to the 1950s apron canon: they were ultrafeminine with ruffled edges, often made of sheer fabrics such as organza, and short, falling a little below crotch length. This new style was meant to be seen and admired while entertaining, distinguishing the hostess from the invited guests. Based on the skimpy size and diaphanous fabric choice, functionality was no longer the raison d’être of the apron—instead, it acquired flirtatious connotations. The slim-skirted dress of the 1950s paired with a short see-through hostess apron sent a provocative message quite different from previous communications. The change in image is so strong that we begin to see aprons depicted on semi-nude pin-up girls by well-known illustrators such as Alberto Vargas, who first became famous in the 1940s. Prior to the 1950s, Vargas’ erotic imagery was generally limited to items of underclothing; he never used items that signified homemaking or housekeeping. His inclusion of the apron as erotica coincided too precisely with the advent of the hostess apron to ignore the sexual undertones that accompanied this particular apron style.
While the pert half-apron was de rigeur for the 1950s housewife and hostess’ culinary adventures, the cobbler apron was used specifically for house cleaning. The cobbler apron covered the full torso, much like a sleeveless artist’s smock. It was hip-length, multi-pocketed, and opened down the back, with a tie or button closure at the neck. The prime feature of this particular apron was a continuous row of pockets around the hemline, which allowed the housewife to carry various sanitizing products and paraphernalia as she went from room to room, cleaning. The cobbler apron was not intended for public display; it was designed as a practical apron that was most useful for moving quickly from one cleaning task to the next.
In contrast to the inward-looking home and family–centric view of the 1950s, cultural preoccupations of the 1960s focused outward on the Space Race, the women’s liberation movement, the Vietnam War, and the resulting hippie movement. Some women of the 1960s were starting to forge careers outside the homemaking sphere, and as a result aprons fell in popularity, perceived as vestiges of an outmoded lifestyle. The self-aggrandizing term “Domestic Engineer” was ironically introduced just as society began to place less importance on the homemaker’s role—a complete reversal from the 1950s view of marriage and motherhood as the pinnacle of women’s aspirations. In this changing domestic landscape, apron styles remained the same, including the classic half-apron and cobbler’s apron. Although apron cuts remained largely unchanged, however, new materials were incorporated and colours became bolder. One such material was vinyl, which was used as an expression of modernity. A see-through vinyl cobbler-style apron echoed the space age look made popular by designers such as Pierre Cardin and André Courrèges, with clean, sleek lines and the incorporation of transparent material. In the same way that clear acrylic furniture became trendy in the 1960s, clear vinyl and plastics were seen as avant-garde materials.
The psychedelic colours of the 1960s echoed the palette associated with the hippie’s self-identification as “flower children.” The omnipresent “flower power” motif was the symbol of the hippies’ protest against the Vietnam War. As such, the flower image was incorporated into all types of decoration, including vehicles, poster art, and textile design. Floral print textiles had been popular choices for aprons as far back as the 1930s, but were never more so than in the 1960s, when hot pink, sunshine yellow, vibrant orange, and lime green floral motifs influenced fashions well beyond their original “make love not war” connotations.
The quest for equality between the sexes was a rising issue of the 1970s, even manifesting itself in identical “His and Hers” apron styles that followed the new trend toward gender neutrality. The unisex style was generally the flat chef’s apron that is still most common today. Another trend that regained popularity was simple, brightly coloured patchwork aprons. The practice of repurposing old fabrics to make patchwork historically has been most popular during times of fabric scarcity, such as the Canadian and American colonial eras of the 18th century, and during the Great Depression. The economic recession of the 1970s, although not a time of fabric shortage, was certainly a time of financial difficulty for many, which may have impacted the resurgence of patchwork.
Holiday aprons of the 1970s often included suggestions for quickly glued-on felt motifs, instead of the more time-consuming embroidery transfers of previous eras. The words “Make it Easy please” were displayed prominently on the envelopes of many McCall’s patterns of the day. Although aprons of this era were often store bought, homemade versions could be whipped up using a sewing machine and decorated in the most expedient manner possible. This trend toward quick and easy patterns was related to the rise in fast food, the proliferation of canned and frozen foods, and the growing popularity of easy-wash fabrics, all of which were part of a larger social zeitgeist of ease and expediency.
The 1980s and 1990s cook tended to favour the one-piece barbecue apron—the same style previously referred to as the butcher’s or chef’s apron, but now with a third name to associate it with a type of cooking done predominantly by men. The modern barbecue is part of the rise of suburban culture that began in the 1950s. Barbecue aprons provided space for jokes and “kiss the cook”–style slogans, and due to their practicality, were worn by both men and women. Late 20th-century aprons also left room for expressions of nostalgia for Victorian and Edwardian clothing. The following image shows a classic apron characterized by a traditional bib, ruffled shoulder straps, and full apron skirt that would not look out of place on a Victorian parlour maid, a pioneer farmer’s wife, or a fashionable woman of the 1980s (Figure 13).
In our present era of the celebrity chef, the most popular apron style is, not surprisingly, the one-piece chef’s apron. Perhaps the aspirational quality of the home cook’s attempts to duplicate the celebrity chef’s oeuvres are what makes this apron a compelling choice. Studies show, however, that men are also contributing more than ever to core housework, which includes cooking. Since many couples share meal preparation duties, this gender-neutral garment is therefore an appropriate symbolic choice within the home as well as in the professional kitchen.
Like those of the 1980s and 1990s, many current aprons are stylistic expressions of nostalgia, attempts to recreate what may seem like the simpler and happier homes of an earlier era. The trend of collecting vintage aprons is strong, as is the manufacture of replica 1950s-style aprons. Of current apron patterns, approximately half are reproductions of the 1950s heyday, with its emphasis on the housewife and the nuclear family. Other demographics, such as single-parent families, are also represented in modern apron marketing, for example the matching Father and Daughter apron set (in the unisex chef’s apron style) advertised in the most recent McCall’s pattern catalogue.
In addition to current interest in recreating the apron styles of the Leave it to Beaver era, the seductive hostess apron of the 1950s has been recontextualized in the present day. Expanding upon the definition of hostess, the style is frequently seen in Naughty Nurse or French Maid costumes and erotic fantasy wear. Provocative Hallowe’en costumes abound in adult versions of apron-wearing seductresses, deriving from such unlikely figures as Goldilocks and Little Bo Peep. Other current versions of hostess aprons are featured in the online Victoria’s Secret catalogue, which boasts a “sweet and sassy apron babydoll” among its “Sexy Little Things” collection. Indeed, the promise is made that wearing this apron will “release your inner vixen.” Other online purveyors include bridal shops that describe aprons as “sexy, sassy and hot” and recommend apron lingerie as an excellent option for honeymoon seduction. I can only begin to imagine why the apron, traditionally associated with women doing housework, has become a provocative, sexually laden image whose purpose is to titillate the male onlooker. I leave this dilemma for the Freudians to unravel.
As an icon, the modern apron has multiple layers of significance, from functional, to frivolous, to erotic. I believe we wear aprons for different reasons than previous generations. In 2011, food writer Marcy Goldman posed an interesting rhetorical question on her Better Baking blog: “How can anyone feel in the mood to cook wearing street clothes or home-from-work clothes?” As a costume designer by trade, this made me wonder: is the present-day apron serving the function of a costume that we only wear when assuming a specific role? Women no longer wake up each morning with a list of domestic chores and automatically don an apron as a uniform for the day’s housework. Is cooking or baking so separate from day-to-day life that we need to put on an apron as a costume to get into the right mindframe? Or is it simply a functional choice? I think perhaps it is a bit of both.
Catherine Bradley is a costume designer and a Senior Academic Associate at McGill University, where she is Head of Wardrobe. She is fascinated by the context that shapes clothing and how this changes the shape of the people wearing it. Her research interests are in digital costume illustration and the creation of digital textures using antique fabrics. The United States Institute of Theatre Technology has recognized her work as a significant contribution to the field of costuming.
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accessed January 15, 2012
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“A History of Aprons and Apron String Cuisine.” Marcy Goldman, accessed November 15, 2011. http://www.betterbaking.com/viewArticle.php?article_id=84
Catherine Bradley est créatrice de costumes et enseigne à l’Université McGill où elle est directrice des costumes. Elle est fascinée par la manière dont les vêtements, façonnés dans un contexte donné, transforment la silhouette de ceux qui les portent. Ses intérêts de recherche portent sur dessin numérique du costume et la création de textures numérique basés sur les tissus historique. Le United States Institute of Theatre Technology a reconnu son travail comme étant une contribution significative au domaine du costume.