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Our Ties to Aprons Go Far Back into History

Once a common part of a cook’s kitchen, aprons fell out of favor but are seeing renewed appreciation and use today.


Historical painting of woman in red apron at counter cutting cabbage.
In a painting by Leon Bonvin, a cook wears a pinner apron (later called a pinafore) while preparing a meal.

When I think of my mother and grandmother in the kitchen, they’re wearing aprons in my memories. Sometimes dusted with flour, other times simply pristine and ready to welcome company, Mom and Grandma Dorothy (Bubba) had a stockpile of aprons in their dressers.


As I age, the things from the past comfort me, but I’m so sad that I didn’t save any of their aprons. Nothing would give me more pleasure than to tie one of their vintage aprons around my waist as I re-create a family recipe. But as a younger woman, I didn’t have the foresight to keep these out of the estate sale, so their aprons are lost to me.


My daughter gave me a frilly apron a few years ago for Mother’s Day, and whenever I use it, memories of Mom and Bubba come alive. It’s almost like I’m putting on a superhero’s cape; I feel like I can tackle anything in the kitchen.


woman in pink, black and white patterned apron
Me in the apron given to me by my daughter. It's my superhero cape for the kitchen!

Aprons were a part of our kitchens for hundreds of years before falling out of favor after the 1960s. In recent years, however, men and women have rediscovered the apron’s appeal. What does this simple little garment have that keeps us from completely severing ties?


A Brief History of Aprons

Apron, from old French napron meaning a small piece of cloth, has functioned over the years as an accessory to protect and decorate clothes. Aprons, worn at the waist, appeared in artworks from the 1300s. In early America, Pilgrim women kept their aprons simple, while Quaker women were allowed more colorful patterns.


By the 1700s, “pinner aprons” were common. This style, which would become known as a pinafore, tied at the woman’s waist while a bib was pinned near her shoulders. Pinner aprons were popular through the mid-1800s until shoulder straps were added to make the garment more efficient. Young girls around the turn of the century were often photographer wearing ruffled pinafores over their dresses.


The early 1900s also saw the creation of America’s first chain restaurant thanks to the Fred Harvey Company. The 1946 film starring Judy Garland, The Harvey Girls, featured the uniform’s crisp white full aprons. In the 1920s and 1930s, flour companies introduced the idea of flour or feed sack aprons. By the 1940s, aprons were a common part of the American household and made fashion statements. They were visual representations of domesticity and “traditional families.” Television moms often had pretty hostess aprons tied over freshly starched shirtdresses.


Judy Garland from The Harvey Girls
A publicity shot for "The Harvey Girls" starring Judy Garland.


But as feminism took root during the 1970s, more women balanced working full-time with their home lives. Tying an apron around the waist and putting a roast in the oven for dinner was an old-fashioned practice; women needed kitchen convenience that often included serving prepared dinners.


A few decades later, cable channels such as The Food Network gave us new access to world-class chefs, many of them—including Emeril Lagasse, Mario Batali, and Bobby Flay—sported chef aprons or jackets. Interestingly, female celebrities like Martha Stewart, Ina Garten, and Lidia Bastianich in their television kitchens were without aprons. (How did Ina keep all the flour off her royal blue blouse?) It looked as though aprons, once again, were coming out of our closets.


There’s even been a touring apron exhibit produced by the Kansas City-based Mid-America Arts Alliance and ExhibitsUSA. Independent curator Joyce Cheney of St. Louis worked on the exhibit and wrote an accompanying book, Aprons: Icons of the American Home.

The exhibit, which has been in several states and closed January 2022 in Florida, noted the heyday for aprons immediately followed World War II, and included an area for people to try on aprons for fun selfies.


EllynAnne Geisel of Pueblo, Colorado, also has curated a traveling apron exhibit, "Tie One On," and has written two books about these domestic garments. Since 1999, Geisel has collected 600 aprons and stories, many included in her first exhibit, "Apron Chronicles," that toured the U.S. for 16 years.


Aprons in Our Kitchens

My mother and grandmother frequently used aprons while in the kitchen, even as late as the early 1970s (below, right). There’s a photo of me at about 3 years of age with one of the fancy aprons tied my waist as I stood on a chair (spotted by Mom) to “help” Bubba wash the dishes. That's her, below left, in her 1950s kitchen. In short, aprons were everywhere in our house.



But were aprons a part of my friends’ family memories, too? And do contemporary home cooks use aprons? A quick poll provided the answers.


Almost 50 Facebook friends responded to my question, “Anybody use an apron when cooking?” Eighteen replied they almost never or no, usually because they don’t own one or forget they do. Diana M. said she has her grandma’s vintage aprons, although she doesn’t use them because of their fragility. Another friend, Diane B., wears an apron only on Thanksgiving while preparing the family feast.


Thirty responded that they either often or always wear aprons, and tradition seemed to play a role here. Marjorie B. said she wears aprons “all the time” and has a collection of vintage aprons. (I hope she’ll post a photo of her wearing one soon!) Dot B., who wears aprons when she cooks, said her grandmother wore an apron every day in the garden. When it was time for dinner, she changed her aprons instead of outfits, and embroidered beautiful, full aprons to wear at the dinner table. Pat W. said she wears aprons when cooking red sauce to keep the splatters off her clothes. “And I have the splattered shirts to prove it!”


Another common theme for apron lovers was the need to keep flour off the front of them; many donned the garment when baking. Friend Beverly H. has an apron for cooking and one for baking. Winter H. said her mom, Brenda, always wears an apron when baking.


Teresa C. said an apron and towel over her shoulder is a signal she “means business” in the kitchen and the preparation of a big meal is about to go down. I get you, sister.


Male cooks also mean business when tying an apron on. Brian P. sent a photo of himself wearing an apron (probably just before making his amazing paella at his St. Louis business, Tale to Table, which hosts a variety of wonderful cooking classes and events. Brian also is the owner of Kakao Chocolate. And remember Scott, our barbecue master? His wife, Marcy, said he uses a leather apron received as a retirement gift to use at the grill and pit. “It’s attractive and works well, says the spouse that does the laundry.”


Christina, who owns the Etsy shop Colorful Cooks, specializes in handmade aprons. Originally from Poland, she said she’s been sewing most of her life, making leather handbags and doing alterations from her apartment after her children were born.


Christina emigrated to the U.S. when she was in her 30s and worked in a factory sewing sweaters. She said she always made clothes for herself and children, too. But once she retired, her daughter helped her set up the Etsy shop where Christina sells her original apron designs. Why aprons?


“Growing up in Poland, we always used homemade aprons to do various chores on the farm. I took that with me and always had an apron while cooking,” she said.


Retro styles with a Peter Pan-style collar and ruffles have sold out, but her original cherry retro apron is one of the shop’s best sellers. Linen aprons, she said, can do double duty in the kitchen or the garden. Half aprons, what Christina calls a baker’s apron, also are popular.


“I love to sew these,” she said. “It gives me pleasure to know they are being used in kitchens all over the U.S. and as far as Australia, Hawaii, the U.K., and Canada as people take time to cook their meals and share them with loved ones.”


 

Feeling nostalgic? What about Creamed Chipped Beef for lunch or dinner?

Or tie an apron on and make these Mock Filets for dinner, which were made popular around World War II.


About the blog

Three Women in the Kitchen is an award-winning food blog offering today’s home cooks comforting, hearty recipes with a personal touch. The website also pays tribute to Deborah’s mother, Katie Reinhardt, and paternal grandmother, Dorothy Reinhardt (the “three women” in the kitchen). Whether you’re an experienced or a novice cook, you’ll find inspiration here to feed your families and warm your heart. Subscribe today so you won’t miss a single delicious detail.

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