Have you noticed that mid-century modern is “in”? On various HGTV shows, homebuyers are going gaga over mid-century modern. Lately, many popular TV shows and movies are set in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Recently I came across several shops that sell reproductions of fashions and home dec from the Eisenhower and Kennedy eras.
If you flip through an old family album from those years, you’ll probably see the women in wearing aprons. No matter the task—cooking, cleaning, washing dishes, hanging the laundry, gardening—mothers, grandmothers, and aunts attacked each household chore with an apron tied around their waists. As did Donna Reed, June Cleaver, Harriet Nelson, and Margaret Anderson, those quintessential television moms who came to call each evening back in the day. Aprons were a de rigueur part of a woman’s wardrobe, not to mention a standard “mom” gift for birthdays, Christmas, and Mother’s Day. Sometimes they were purchased; more often, they were handmade and embellished with embroidery, lace, smocking, or other handiwork.
Back then girls took Home Economics, and their first sewing project was often a gingham half apron. In colonial times girls mastered the alphabet and Bible sayings by embroidering samplers. In the last century they mastered the sewing machine and hand sewing in Home Ec classes.
Aprons are mentioned as far back as the Bible. In Genesis 3:7, Adam and Eve sewed fig leaves together to make themselves aprons. However, the apron didn’t become commonplace until the 13th century when blacksmiths donned leather aprons to protect themselves from the hot metals and sparks of the forge. Today, metal smiths and welders still wear aprons for protection, although they have replaced leather with more protective synthetic materials.
Eventually, more people began wearing aprons to protect both themselves and their clothing. Fishermen found that wool aprons not only kept them dry but kept their clothes free of fish smells. Aprons served multiple purposes for women who used them for both cleaning and as flexible gathering containers.
According to Joyce Cheney, the curator of the national exhibit, “Apron Strings: Ties to the Past,” at one time a person’s occupation could be discerned from the color and pattern of his apron. Gardeners, spinners, weavers, and garbage men wore blue aprons. Butlers wore green. Butchers wore blue stripes. Cobblers wore what was known as “black flag” aprons, which protected them from the black wax they used. English barbers wore checkered aprons and were known as “checkered apron men.” Stonemasons wore white. Today members of the Fraternal Order of Masons continue to don white aprons during Masonic ceremonies.
Although white was traditionally the color of aprons worn by house servants, upper class Victorian women also wore aprons. However, instead of the simple, utilitarian aprons of their maids, these Victorian ladies spent hours embellishing fine white linen with intricate embroidery and handmade lace and tatting. The aprons, often works of art in themselves, were worn, not for protection from the messiness of household tasks, but as a symbol of domestic pride and a showcase for their talents.
Prior to the Depression, most aprons were made of white cotton or linen. However, with the onset of the Depression, both materials and money became scarce. Women were forced to make do with whatever fabrics they could scrounge. Aprons, like quilts, were often made from feed and flour sacks or scraps of clothing. The use of these patterned fabrics heralded a turning point in the look of the apron. After the Depression, calicos became popular fabrics for aprons. By the 1940’s many aprons featured large floral print fabrics.
In the 1940’s and 1950’s women were often pictured wearing aprons in magazine advertisements and later on television commercials. The apron-clad housewife became the emblematic salesperson for everything from kitchen appliances to frozen foods. Most women had a kitchen drawer devoted to their apron collection, wearing different style aprons for different household chores. June Cleaver coordinated her aprons with her dresses and accessorized them with pearls and heels. Women embellished their aprons with rickrack, buttons, ribbons, beads, and lace, wearing tea and hostess aprons for entertaining. Aprons featuring printed pictures of popular tourist attractions became a standard souvenir item for women to purchase while on vacation.
In the early 1970’s, the hostess apron, complete with ruffles, had a brief period of popularity. Nowadays, however, most women only bother with an apron for a specific messy task, such as baking. Often, dad is the family member wearing an apron, donning a simple canvas one while flipping burgers at the grill. Today, however, aprons are mostly seen in restaurants on waiters and chefs.