Aprons Come Out of the Closet

I have recently developed a fascination with aprons.

Particularly, vintage aprons like our grandmothers, aunts and mothers used to wear.

Something about the myriad colors, shapes and textures of the appeals to me. It is fascinating to me how much time was spent in sewing and decorating an item of clothing whose first purpose is purely functional, meant to simply spare one’s clothing when one does messy jobs in the kitchen.

You have to remember that I come from a culinary arts background where aprons are strictly utilitarian: vast swaths of sturdy white fabric, easily bleached to sparkling perfection, which enrobe a cook or chef so that they can manage the often sticky and unpleasant jobs a professional kitchen entails. Wrapped in a long apron with a generous bib, a chef can wade through tasks as nasty as eviscerating and scaling thirty pounds of fish, cleaning the seeds and slimy orange placental tissue from huge pumpkins and cutting a primal cut of beef down into individual portions, then strip off the stained fabric, roll down the sleeves to her pristine chef’s coat and walk out into the dining room to greet guests or talk to a sales representative without reeking from the kitchen’s more unsightly labors.

When I was in culinary school, I and my classmates and our chef instructors went through aprons like crazy. We carried extras around with us, carefully bleached of any lingering stains and obsessively pressed, so if we made an utter hash of one, we had a backup to throw on so we could look fresh in an instant. We all did laundry at least every other day, even those of us who always bought extra aprons and side towels. On the advice of our chefs, we didn’t use laundry detergent to wash our uniforms and aprons, but instead used dishwasher detergent, usually Cascade, in order to get them perfectly clean and white with the least amount of trouble and work. (So here is a free tip for you–if you are washing whites that need a good bleaching, use Cascade either powder or gel. You don’t need much–just a tiny bit more than what you use in a dishwasher, and you will end up with sparkling clean cloth. You just don’t want to do this too often, because it seriously degrades cotton fabric over time. Trust me–I went through lots of aprons and chef’s coats in the course of eighteen months.)

Aprons are useful in a professional kitchen not just to protect the chef’s coat from technicolor food stains, but also come in handy as an impromptu side towel or hot pad, and even as a cloth to wipe up a sudden spill of dangerously hot liquid. I have even whipped off my own apron and used it as a bandage to quell the bleeding from another student’s accidentally cut finger.

As practical and sensible an item of clothing as an apron is to a chef, it is also part of their uniform. It proclaims to the world that this person, who wields authority and is a manager of people and comestibles, also gets his hands dirty and does a significant amount of physical labor.

There is a difference between a chef in her coat and a chef in her coat and her apron.

A chef in her coat may be at work, but she is likely checking over a delivery, doing payroll, putting together menu copy or constructing a work schedule. In the kitchen she may be, but she is not cooking.

It is only when she puts on the apron, tying it around her waist, and tucking a side towel neatly at her hip, that she steps up to the stove and begins to cook.

An apron signals to all the world that not only is this person a chef, he is a cook as well.

So, coming from this background, I find it somewhat strange that I have begun collecting vintage aprons from the 1930′s up the 1970′s. Not only have I begun collecting them, I have started -wearing- them in the kitchen.

These colorful confections, with decorative details such as appliqué pockets in the shapes of hearts or tulips, ruffled skirts, lines of rickrack and embroidery are all unfailingly feminine and even though most of them are utilitarian in nature, they certainly don’t look it. The cut of them, and the way the bibs are tailored are meant to accentuate the curves of a female body; this is particularly true of the styles popular in the 1950′s when feminine beauty and domesticity were entwined perfectly in the person of actress Donna Reed.

Zak was somewhat taken aback when I began picking up the odd vintage apron here and there, bringing them home and wearing them. When I told him that I wanted to start making colorful aprons once my sewing room is put together, he was speechless. Then, he sputtered, “But, that is so, so, so–anti-feminist! What about Betty Friedan? What about The Feminine Mystique?”

I couldn’t help but feel a pang of guilt when he mentioned Betty Friedan’s seminal work which heralded the beginning of Second Wave Feminism, because it honestly is one the most influential books that has entered my psyche. Why? Well, because the lives she describes I saw all around me when I was growing up. Even though she was speaking primarily about the experiences of middle-class educated white women and I came from a working class white background, the crux of the book–that women’s identities were subsumed into the care of their families and homes to the detriment of everyone–was something I observed all around me. My family, my neighbors, my mother’s friends, my friends’ mothers, sisters, aunts, cousins–you get the picture. Most of them had some symptom or another of what Friedan called, “the problem with no name.”

Somehow or another aprons, at least the very feminine, colorful tailored bib aprons and ruffled half aprons, have become symbols of the oppression of women.

Only the boxy, straight-shaped butcher’s apron which chefs and butchers has escaped being viewed as a symbol of women’s servitude. I believe that the reason it has escaped this stigma is because it has traditionally been a male garment–most professional butchers, meatcutters and chefs for decades have been male, after all. And, the butcher’s apron, which is what I wore all through culinary school, is, as I mentioned before, a strictly utilitarian garment which not only protects the wearer and her clothing, but also is a part of the chef’s uniform, connoting prestige.

Home cooks, homemakers and housewives, however, do not get prestige. Not only were they devalued previous to the publication of The Feminine Mystique, they have often been devalued by the very feminists who claimed to want to uplift and help them. Femininity is not as highly valued as masculinity, so “our” garments are not highly respected either–and they have become symbols of work that is seen as highly detrimental to women’s souls.

I am not going to argue with Friedan’s assertion that when the only outlet women have for their personal expression of individuality and worth is found the care of their homes and families, that it takes away a their personhood. I agree that can be a brain-numbing and soul-killing occupation for anyone, -especially- if she is not granted a choice in the matter. (A choice is not a choice when it is the only option available, after all.)

But, I do think that it is somewhat silly that a useful and potentially beautiful garment like an apron has become a symbol of the oppression of American women such that if I, uber-feminist that I am, put one on, I am somehow betraying my own equality. I guess that if I wear an apron from the admittedly less-enlightened 1950′s, I am either longing to become some sort of Stepford-Wife Donna Reed June Cleaver clone, or I am not really serious about cooking, the way a chef is.

That is all just poppycock, pure and simple.

I like aprons, especially old ones.

There is something visceral about them, particularly the handmade ones, with the tiny careful stitches, and the embroidery on them, that speak to me of history.

I think about the women who made these aprons, and who wore them, and what they did in them. I think about farmwives carefully picking up eggs or even newly hatched chicks into the safety of a nest made of her gathered up apron. I think about my Grandma baking bread, of my Aunt Emma whipping up eggnog, and of my Mom canning tomatoes, all of them wrapped in colorful aprons which not only protected their clothes, but also brightened their days, and made them look pretty while they worked.

What, exactly is wrong with feeling and looking pretty while working in the kitchen, garden, or house?

White butcher’s aprons are very useful and functional, but they are not really attractive. There is also the issue that butcher’s aprons are not made to fit curvy women; the straight, blocky lines look quite good on men and very slender women, but for women with hourglass figures like mine-they tend to make us look pregnant or else ungainly. Or worse, both.

And, in my experience, after eighteen months of culinary school wearing clothes that were tailored for men which made me look a good forty pounds heavier than I am, my self-esteem took a beating.

And now that I am no longer in a professional kitchen, I see no reason to adhere to the uniform of a chef. I am free now to wear aprons that not only protect my own clothing, but also express my own sense of style.

In wearing old aprons which I have primarily found on eBay, I find that I feel a connection to the women of the past. How is can such a thing be anti-woman? And isn’t feminism about women–and giving us choices? Isn’t it about stretching boundaries and being who we are? Isn’t it about respecting women’s lives, including the ephemera that surrounds us? Isn’t it about our art, our creations, how we express our natures? Isn’t it about being both strong and nurturing?

Aren’t both Rosie the Riveter and Donna Reed both icons of femininity?

Why can I not celebrate them both, then? (Though, I have to admit I am much more partial to Rosie myself–if she just had an apron, she would be perfect….)

I am comforted by the fact that I am not alone in my interest in vintage aprons.

For one thing, Morganna shares my liking for them, and was thrilled when I bought her several old aprons for herself. (Granted, I also planned on copying them in a larger size for myself, but the colors were very Morganna.) She even wore one to school, as part of a very adorable outfit which you see her modeling for you in one of the photos illustrating this post.

Strangely, after the kids at school got over asking, “Why are you wearing an apron?” they decided that it looked cool. When they heard it was a vintage piece from the 1950′s, it became even -more- cool because it was old.

And, it isn’t just Morganna and I who are showing interest in vintage and vintage-inspired aprons.

Apparently, aprons have become trendy among some women, including bloggers. Cooks, crafters, seamstresses, moms, artists and women who just plain old like aprons have taken to making and wearing their own creations which get featured in the “Tie One On Project.” Looking through the photographs featured in the project, I cannot help but feel kinship with these women who use the canvas of an apron to express their individuality and creativity while making an object which is meant primarily to be functional.

To me, functional objects are only enhanced by being aesthetic as well. The converse–making art that is also somehow functional–is also highly appealing. Hence my interest in both cooking and quilting…there are few things more functional and basic than food and a means to keep warm, yet these can also be the means by which one can express the highest form of creativity imaginable.

Aprons are part of women, and thus a part of our stories and history. This fact is acknowledged and celebrated by a traveling museum exhibit currently touring the US that combines vintage aprons with photographs and oral histories and stories about them and the women who wore them. Titled “Apron Chronicles”, this show is the brainchild of author and apron collector EllynAnne Geisel and photographer Kristina Loggia, and is getting a good response from visitors wherever it goes. Geisel’s book, The Apron Book has been the finalist for several book awards and won the Independent Publisher Awards Gold Medal for 2007.

Aprons are coming out of the closet, and hopefully for good this time. While I missed out on the National Wear Your Apron Day this year, I will proudly participate next year.

Maybe I will go out wearing an apron over jeans and my Rosie the Riveter t-shirt.

I wonder that people will think of that?

19 Comments

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  1. What a fascinating post! I love aprons, and am always being gifted aprons (just wrote a post about it). It never bothers me to wear an apron, it is a proud symbol of a home cook, whether male or female (and someone who cannot afford to get her clothes ruined with turmeric stains!).

    Comment by Nupur — June 11, 2007 #

  2. I love aprons, have many and rarely use them. It is always something more to wash and iron. However, there is something comforting about seeing them – that kind of comfort that comes sitting around the table with a big bowl of chicken soup or beef stew or a loaf of homemade bread. They represent home, good cooking, safety from the outside world. Maybe it is time for me to pull them out.

    The other kitchen fabric I have and do use are flour sack dish towels. The vintage kind that have hand embroidered flowers, roosters, days of the week. Seeing them reminds me of home, my grandmother and greataunt. My supply acquired when I was a young woman is almost gone having been used to death. It is time to find some new vintage ones.

    Thanks for the memories.

    Comment by Maureen — June 11, 2007 #

  3. Aprons! I have some beautifully decorated ones that I wear over pants – jeans or slacks – to achieve a sort of “skirt-over-pants” look. They’re so much fun! Definitely not just functional!

    Comment by Hadar — June 11, 2007 #

  4. I really enjoyed reading this–though I never ever wear aprons myself.
    Have you seen this:
    http://heatherbailey.typepad.com/heather_bailey/2006/09/sew_heather_sew.html

    Comment by Tea — June 12, 2007 #

  5. Aprons were something that my Southern Grandmother and mother never cooked without. Caring for their family by working outside the home or in the kitchen, wearing an apron, never squelched their (strong)personalities in a noticeable way.

    We even had aprons for our Coke bottles; a great way to keep the glistening moisture of an ice cold treat from making hands clammy.

    Comment by Rachel — June 12, 2007 #

  6. I feel exactly the same way about (and collect) hand-embroidered handkerchiefs.

    Comment by wwjudith — June 12, 2007 #

  7. You go girl! Aprons are so awesome and your post says it all. I have had a fascination with aprons since I was a little girl. My Mom wore one, as did all of my Aunts and Grandma. They had feminine aprons and “functional” aprons. The functional ones were actually used while cooking. The pretty, colorful, and very feminine ones were worn while serving, or on holidays. I also remember some damn sexy ones my Mom wore that were black or red sheer with a ruffle around.
    Thanks so much for sharing your post. It sure did bring on some memories and re-kindle some interest. I think I might find one of those old sexy ones. I’m sure my man would love to come home to me cooking dinner wearing one of those! Oh did I say….only one of those?

    Comment by Joy — June 12, 2007 #

  8. Right on, sister! Betty Friedan was v. important to me, too, but it’s good to be able to look at the past (the past of my mother and aunts) and value what was good about it, while rejecting what wasn’t. I collect vintage tablecloths myself.
    I’m going to be down in SE Ohio this week visiting my grandsons–my secondary area of local food to appreciate.

    Comment by lucette — June 12, 2007 #

  9. I totally agree about aprons. Vintage versions (1940s – 1960s) are my particular delight. I adove the frills on the earlier ones (although I dare not wipe food-stained hands on them) and goofy cartoons like dancing vegetables and cowgirls on the latter ones. Alas, what I find I really use is an oversized tea towel. At least I can wipe my hands without worry!

    Cheers.

    Comment by almost vegetarian — June 12, 2007 #

  10. I have two aprons I use and both are function but also decorated. They are new and modern. One is from the musical “Sweeney Todd” which is about a barber who kills his customers and his downstairs neighbors turns them into meat pies. I like wearing it especially when I’m roasting big joints of meat! LOL!

    The other one was a freebie from a friend who works as a model and got it at a makeup sampling gig, and it says “Beauty Consultant” on it. I love it because it has pockets, but also because food is beautiful and I like the idea that I’m consulting it on how to be more beautiful. Strange, but silly and true.

    I’d like to get more aprons! But I use them too much and too hard to invest in vintage ones.

    N.

    Comment by Nicole — June 12, 2007 #

  11. I am glad to see so many apron lovers (and lovers of other vintage textiles) here!

    I only wear the most sturdy of my vintage aprons, in large part because of their fragility.

    That fragility is why I am working towards making new aprons that look vintage by using reproduction and vintage patterns. (That is, as soon as I get the sewing room together and Kat finally cuts this awful tooth that has turned her into a clingy, crying sad weeling these days….)

    I love the number of women who are making new aprons that look old out there these days, and I want to do some of that myself. When I finally start my sewing projects, I will post some pictures–especially if I decide to sell a few of my creations.

    Comment by Barbara — June 12, 2007 #

  12. Hi. I love aprons, too! I found a great pattern for a ruffled apron and I love to make them with reproduction fabrics.

    Comment by Libby — June 12, 2007 #

  13. I love making aprons! There is a great pattern by Amy Butler:
    http://www.joggles.com/store/catalog/product_info.php?language=en&currency=USD&products_id=2296

    I love to sew and aprons are my favorite things to make.

    Comment by Steamy Kitchen — June 12, 2007 #

  14. Those are some great patterns, folks–thanks for posting links.

    Jaden–you should not be surprised to know that I have that pattern by Amy Butler, and I have a friend whom I am itching to make one of them for her. I have these yummy fabrics that just scream her name to me and I want to stitch one up and send it off as a surprise.

    As soon as that tooth comes in….

    Comment by Barbara — June 16, 2007 #

  15. I have a hack for “homemade” aprons that my friends have enjoyed very much–it’s basically just cutting the sleeves and back off a man’s t-shirt that’s past its prime, leaving tails on the sides for the tie.

    Comment by Erin — June 25, 2007 #

  16. hi
    my hubby and i are aproncollectors from Europe and we like to publissing a book ” Aprons from allover the world ” so if you will help us , please send some pictures of you wearing a apron to us , also with a story , where you lived and about the apron.
    thanks
    send it to : ilikeaprons@hotmail.com

    Comment by ilike aprons — July 2, 2007 #

  17. hi
    my hubby and i are aproncollectors from Europe and we like to publissing a book ” Aprons from allover the world ” so if you will help us , please send some pictures of you wearing a apron to us , also with a story , where you lived and about the apron.
    thanks
    send it to : ilikeaprons@hotmail.com

    Comment by ilike aprons — July 2, 2007 #

  18. Love, love, love making aprons. Must have made about 30 or so. I love one pattern that is reversible! Unfortunately or fortunately I give them as gifts. I would love to sell them. When I was a toddler the little old lady who babysat me was disabled and sewed aprons and bonnets for “egg money”. She would give us scrap fabric to play with. Been hooked ever since. Aprons—-right up there with my sewing machine collection and quilting! Long live the homemade apron!

    Comment by EvelynW — July 25, 2007 #

  19. Hello Apron Lovers
    Love to read about aprons…so glad I am making aprons this last 4 years and the response has been great. So many American Ladies are back in the kitchen, unashamed to wear aprons. I think the apron wearing down fall from the 1970s on was the Feminist movement.. So yes you agree!!
    so now we mostly wear aprons except for the “I DON’T WEAR APRONS!!” people. Some women have a love/hate opinion on aprons..oh well, they’ll come around…especially when they get their nice clothes dirty over and over again. Women (and men) are back in the kitchen (or never left the kitchen), raising kids, enjoying freshly cooked food….. Aprons are very feminine, stylish and so in right now. Hope apron wearing is a trend that will be as American as Apple Pie again. Seems like aprons never went out of style in England, Australia, Japan…any comments??

    Comment by Lynn Kelly — January 3, 2010 #

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