The best designs are those that we barely notice, so ubiquitous that they’re taken for granted. They also endure—time, wear, cultural upheaval—and adapt without changing what makes them fundamentally necessary. The apron, then, just might be the epitome of good design.
Derived from the French word naperon (meaning “small tablecloth” in English), the apron has been worn since ancient times for practical, decorative and ritualistic purposes. Cretan fertility goddesses are often depicted in art works wearing sacred aprons, as are Assyrian priests. Egyptians donned them in religious rites while making sacrifices at the altars of ancient Gods or during ceremonies of initiation, while pharaohs wore jewel-encrusted aprons.
In Europe during the Middle Ages, aprons were tied around the waists of homemakers, artisans and members of the working class alike to protect their clothing from the wear and tear of daily life. Due to the pervasiveness of the garment amongst tradesmen, they earned the moniker ‘apron men’ and could be distinguished by the color of their apron: blue was for gardeners, spinners, weavers and garbage men, while blue stripes were for butchers. Butlers wore green and barbers sported checkered; cobblers donned black aprons to protect them from the black wax they used; similarly, stonemasons could be identified by their white aprons to match the dust from the stone with which they worked (in fact, the apron remains part of Masonic ceremonial attire even in the 21st-century).
During this time, aprons were plain and unembellished. However, by the late 1500s they became elaborately and delicately decorated with lace and embroidery, emerging as a fashion statement throughout Europe. Yet it wasn’t until the turn of the 20th-century in Victorian England that these highly embellished aprons ‘officially’ became a staple in women’s fashion.
Meanwhile, in the United States, Native Americans had long used aprons for both functional and ceremonial purposes. For Colonial people who had come to settle the land, aprons were born of practical necessity and served two important purposes: The first was to protect their pared down wardrobes from both tarnish and frequent washing (a soiled apron would be cleaned much more regularly than other garments); the second was for working the farm—carrying firewood, kindling, vegetables and eggs, mopping brows, cleaning hands… These early 1900s aprons were made with whatever material was on hand, often cotton, linen or sturdy feed cloth. Feed cloth aprons epitomized the period’s no-waste attitude: when a feed sack was no longer needed, it was made into an apron; once that apron was no longer usable, bits and pieces were salvaged to make a quilt.
By the 1920s and into the ’30s, women began shirking their association with domestic responsibility, and leaving apron wearing to the servants, butlers, maids and cooks. Aprons, typically long with little or no defined waistline, once again became symbolic of the working class.
After the horrors of the Great Depression and World War II, the quintessential all-American family became a national value and the apron became the uniform of the “happy” housewife. It symbolized a return to normalcy, the comfort of home and a bountiful dining table. With the shift in the apron’s symbolism came a change in its appearance: plain white cotton was replaced with bright gingham and other cheery patterns, decorative trim and buttons, contrast stitching and colored pockets, and a slimmer, cinched waist.
It was during this time that the advertising world capitalized on the apron’s symbolism. In the 1940s and ’50s, nearly every advertisement featuring cooking, cleaning and other housework included an apron. By the mid-1950s, aprons and the American housewife became synonymous, as glamorized on television by iconic characters like June Cleaver and Lucy Ricardo. They were worn not only for cooking and cleaning, but also for entertaining, and became a marker of the perfect hostess. This era, perhaps the time period most associated with the apron, brought with it the rise of the half-apron (which covered below the waist only), two-piece aprons, and aprons for both everyday use and special occasions. They were at once a fashion statement and utilitarian, a status symbol and a mark of feminism, and a way for women to show off their domesticity, creativity, and handiwork.
But a social revolution was just around the corner: the feminist movement. Women of the 1960s began to shatter the previously held ideals of what feminism was, and one of the biggest tenets of this revolution was the end of the idealization of housework and—more importantly—the role of women being tied exclusively to the home. Additionally, the economic boom that began in the 1940s meant that the typical 1960s household now had a larger wardrobe, a washing machine and access to cheaper clothes. As a result (and perhaps as a direct backlash of the extraordinary popularity of the apron in the 1950s), the apron began to fall out of favor. By the 1980s, aprons were almost entirely reserved for tradespeople, food service workers and the backyard barbecuer.
Though the apron doesn’t hold the social or class significance it once did, and is no longer considered the ultimate fashion statement, it has found a new—and growing—foothold in the 21st-century. One factor contributing to the apron’s comeback is society’s inevitable tendency to look to the past for inspiration. The recent back-to-the-kitchen and craft movements, both of which favor a by-hand and from-scratch approach, have brought with them a renewed need for the “work” apron. Typically made from a sturdy, durable material, like leather or waxed canvas, and crafted with durability and quality in mind, the gender-neutral work apron has a functionality-centric design that seamlessly transitions from kitchen to workshop.
Though traditionally considered feminine, the apron can trace its roots back thousands of years as an important, sometimes sacred, garment for both men and women—from the poorest laborers to the highest pharaohs and goddesses. History has shown that this unassuming garment is very much a reflection of each culture and time period’s political and social climate, whether as a fashion statement or functional uniform, or perhaps a bit of both.