The Not So Humble Apron
April 17th, 2013
For the past few weeks, I’ve been helping to install an exhibit of aprons (1880s-1970s) at the South County Historical Society. My job was purely technical — I did some minor wet cleaning, applied plenty of gentle steam to get the wrinkles out, and hand-sewed twill-tape supports until I was cross-eyed (thanks heavens I wasn’t alone on the steaming or sewing). But it got me thinking about aprons.
Of course, the primary point of an apron is to cover up — and often to protect — your clothing. They were (and are) worn by men and women alike, in different configurations according to the task at hand. But aprons weren’t always a matter of simple utility. From centuries past, right up to the 1960s, wealthy women — who never had to lift a finger for housework in their life — regularly wore “dress aprons” as part of their “at home” ensembles. Whether receiving guests in an 18th or 19th century parlor, or mixing cocktails for her husband’s office party, the well-dressed woman donned a frilly apron-shaped confection as a symbol of her domestic dominion.
“You will think I am dreaming when I tell you that a great many ladies have resumed aprons. This fashion is both graceful and convenient : it gives the toilet an air of simplicity which agrees well with le coin de feu…an air of delicate coquetry that is by no means to be disdained.”
The Ladies’ Companion, 1860
Dress aprons appeared frequently in fashion plates, like this one from Godey’s, as well as in the work table department of ladies’ magazines with diagrams for cutting and construction.
DESCRIPTION OF FASHION PLATE.
FIG. 1. – Muslin morning dress, made high in the neck. The corsage is a surplice shape, with bishop sleeves. Apron of plaid silk, trimmed with black lace. Muslin morning cap, trimmed with flowers. The tout ensemble of this dress is remarkable for its simplicity and beauty.
Godey’s Lady’s Book, October 1840; Philadelphia, PA.
Notice the decorative apron on the left? “Morning dress” was meant to be worn in the home, perhaps while receiving visitors making “morning calls,” which, ironically, were never made until afternoon. These formal 19th-century aprons often boasted elaborate decorations — I’ve seen one quite covered in silk-ribbon embroidery — and high, shaped waistbands supported by small pieces of whalebone.
If for common use, aprons are made of white, brown, blue, black, or checked linen, of black stuff, calico, Holland, leather, nankeen, print, or long cloth ; if for better purposes, of cambric muslin, clear mulled, or jaconet muslin, silk, satinette, satin, &c. The length of the apron is, of course, generally determined by the height of the wearer, and the width, by that of the material, and by the purpose for which it is intended. For working aprons, the width is generally one breadth of a yard wide ; for dress aprons, two breadths, one of which is cut in half, and these halfs put one on each side of the whole breadth. If the material should be wide enough, one breadth, of from fourteen to twenty nails, will answer very well.
The Workwoman’s Guide, by a Lady; 1838, London.
There was also a distinction made between servants’ aprons that were meant to get dirty — worn while cooking, cleaning, or emptying the slops — and aprons that were meant to be seen.
“Before dinner is served she [the maid of all work] should again wash her hands and change her apron, making her dress as seemly as the nature of her employments permit.”
An Encyclopaedia of Domestic Economy, by Thomas Webster & Mrs. William Parkes; 1855, New York.
By the end of the 19th century, servants’ better aprons had become very formal indeed. Take this one for example. It belonged to someone in my maternal grandmother’s family — though as far as I know, none of them were ever in service.
I also have a number of aprons — both utilitarian and otherwise — that belonged to my grandmother herself, from 1940 through the 1970s.