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.
Godey's Fashion Plate, October 1840


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.

Early-20th Century Apron

I also have a number of aprons — both utilitarian and otherwise — that belonged to my grandmother herself, from 1940 through the 1970s.


Aprons, Part 7

May 23rd, 2012

I’m running out of things to say about aprons.

Today’s pairing features stylized flowers — they scream 1950s to me, but they could also be from the 1970s, when 1950s style saw a resurgence (think Happy Days, Grease).

Number one is pretty basic, relying on the printed fabric for decorative effect.

Funky Flowers Apron

And a more elaborate apron of geometric daisies with red trim and patch pockets.

Stylized Flowers Apron

Aprons, Part 6

May 20th, 2012

Yes, they are endless. But at least you only have to read about them. I, on the hand…

The aprons featured in this post are both sheer. The first is one of my favorites, of blue dotted Swiss. I have a thing for dotted Swiss. The red rick rack doesn’t hurt either. And check out the shaped waistband and scalloped hem. I’m taking a guess that this one is from the 1950s.

Dotted Swiss Apron

The next one is badly faded, but there are faint remnants of stenciled flowers on the pocket and along the hem.

Sheer Painted Apron

It’s got me stumped as far as age though. Could be as early as the 1940s based on the delicate fabric and fine sewing. What do you think?

Aprons, Part 5

May 4th, 2012

Since my last apron post, I’ve actually found four more. But I haven’t had a chance to photograph them yet. Besides, I’ve still got plenty to show you from the first batch.

These two seem to be a pair. They’re both semi-sheer cotton, beautifully sewn, with contrast binding and embroidered “flower pot” shaped pockets. I’m guessing 1950s on these based on the material’s condition and the overall design, though there’s a possibility they may be from the 1970s.

White Flower Pot Apron

And the pink one has an extra feature —  my mother’s name was carefully printed on the waistband with a black pen, as though she wore it in a class, or maybe for a girl-scout project. Underneath her name are two illegible figures that look more like the numbers “71” than anything else. Maybe the aprons were a gift from my mother to my grandmother in 1971? Or do the numbers refer to her class or scout troop?

Pink Flower Pot Apron

The suspense is killing me! Mom, if you’re reading this…call me.

Aprons, Part 4

May 1st, 2012

Here’s another installment from the never-ending supply of aprons. These two are both shades of pink, which may be about all they have in common.

The first is pieced, with a center panel of pale pink flanked by sides, mitered hem, and waistband/ties of a matching pale pink flowered print. There’s even a bit of deeper pink rick rack trim along the slanted pockets and around the center panel.

Pink pieced apron

Like the gingham aprons last week, this one is hard to date. I know it’s not terribly old simply by feeling the fabric. Would it be a cop out to say it’s from the second half of the 20th century?

The second pink apron is decidedly on the older side. I could be persuaded to go as far as the early 1940s based on the item and what I know about my grandmother’s life. It’s a darker pink, and more simply made. All the stitching is machine-done, even the hem, with white thread and teensy tiny stitches. It’s a very close weave cotton and stiff, as though it had been starched many times. The fabric has begun to wear away in spots at the center front, and is a bit faded in some spots and shiny in others.

Apron printed à la disposition

What makes it really splendid though is that the fabric is printed à la disposition. That means it’s printed with a design meant to be incorporated into the garment’s construction, like this decorative faux lace band along the hem for example. Cotton (and perhaps other materials too, though I’ve most often heard of cotton) dresses printed à la disposition were all the rage in the 1850s.

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