At its core, the apron is a garment rooted in protection. It is designed to provide a barrier between some kind of messy work and the more-valuable clothing beneath it. Today, we mostly associate the apron with cooking, and while it has certainly been used for that purpose, its versatility reaches far beyond the kitchen.
A closer look at the apron provides a kind of historical look at human labor and its place both inside and outside the home. At each development in the apron, we see a different emphasis on what gets protected and the role of the products the labor creates—from the cobbler’s shoes to grandma’s apple pie.
Early Aprons Protected Clothes from Tough Jobs
In their early days, aprons were nearly entirely reserved for men, and not just any men—the men who did the toughest, most demanding jobs. Aprons were donned by blacksmiths as they worked and fishmongers as they cleaned their daily catch. Other roles requiring aprons included stonemasons, barbers, tailors, gardeners, and cobblers. In these roles, aprons were designed to protect the more delicate clothing beneath them from some of the messiest work
These early aprons were often made out of tough material like leather or canvas. Often, aprons were tied around the waist and simply draped down over the legs, making them closely akin to a loincloth. Depending on the work, some of these aprons covered both the front and the back of the body to offer maximum protection for not only the clothing but also the person’s body. You’ll see a similarly-purposed apron every time you get x-rays. The technicians don heavy protective aprons to shield their body from frequent doses of radiation during the course of their job.
The color of the aprons used during the Middle Ages could even demonstrate what job a man did. Barbers wore checkered aprons. Butchers wore blue stripes. Stonemasons frequently donned white aprons suitable for working around the white dust their jobs produced.
From the Practical to the Symbolic
While the earliest aprons were typically donned by men, more delicate versions were adapted by women who were cooking in the home. They used them to protect their clothing from spills and stains. This practical use was particularly important for families without a lot of disposable income. Dresses were expensive, and laundry was time consuming. Most women in modest homes did not have the time or the money to deal with their dresses getting stained at every meal. These simple garments would often be made out of flour sacks or other common, easily-available materials.
As the “roaring 20s” took hold, many women rejected associations with the drudgery of housework. At this point, the apron was often a symbol of status. Maids and hired help wore them while the “lady of the house” did not. This tiny piece of cloth became a symbol for who was expected to do the labor in a household.
The Apron Has Philosophical Ups and Downs
Following the Great Depression, the 1940s and 1950s saw a rise of the apron as a desirable garment. American women embraced housework as their role and took on the image of “domestic goddess.” At this point, aprons became symbols of their duty to the home, and they give off messages of hospitality and goodwill. They became much more ornate, decorated with lace and patterns.
The apron’s association with housekeeping and gendered labor made it a target for derision during the feminist uprising of the 1960s. This garment fell out of favor as it was associated with oppressive and limiting gender expectations.
Once again, the negative association did not last. In today’s world, cooking at home is on the rise again. The popularity of cooking has been helped along by television shows like those featured on The Food Network, and environmental and economic concerns have many people turning to home cooking as a solution to global problems. Even those who end up ordering takeout more evenings than they’d like to admit often fill their homes with the symbols and trappings of dedicated home cooking including upright mixers, shiny pots and pans, and—yes—the ever-protective apron.