Dr. Seuss’s 1971 children's book “The Lorax” describes a mass-produced garment called a Thneed: “A Thneed's a Fine-Something-That-All-People-Need! It's a shirt. It's a sock. It's a glove. It's a hat. But it has OTHER uses. Yes, far beyond that.” While "Lorax" was a screed against factory owners destroying the environment to pump out useless products, the Thneed has something in common with homemade vintage aprons: these pieces of fabric were remarkably versatile, used as coverings, bags, towels, and general kitchen tools.

Vintage apron connoisseurs like to say the first aprons appeared with the first humans. When Adam and Eve took a bite of fruit from the Tree of Life and became aware of their own nakedness, they fashioned fig-leaf aprons. And while we think of aprons as feminine and motherly things, aprons have a long history of use outside the home, starting as early as the 10th century, particularly in manly professions like blacksmithing, glass working, welding, carpentry, and butchery. These craftsmen wore aprons made of heavy canvas or leather to protect their bodies from scalding heat and sharp tools. Today, even newer professions like X-ray technicians and chemists require similarly protective aprons.

In the kitchen, cook’s aprons were made of lighter materials. In the 18th century, most people owned two or three pairs of clothes at most, as fabric and textiles were expensive. For example, a woman might only have one or two dresses. An apron, usually made out of scraps, was smaller and easier to wash than a dress, and served to protect clothes from ingredients spilling and splattering. Fabric aprons also became a standard part of maid’s clothing, to keep the grime of cleaning off their uniforms.

For pioneer women managing the household chores on farms, aprons were much more than simply outer garments; they were tools. They would be used as carry-alls, to bring in fruits and vegetables from the garden, eggs from the henhouse, and logs from the woodpile. In the kitchen, the apron was also a potholder, to protect her hands when she removed pans from the oven or stove top.

An apron was also an all-purpose towel, to pat a brow that was sweaty from standing over a wood-burning stove, to wipe hands clean of flour and cooking mess, to dry a crying child’s tears, to wash dirty faces, and to dust household furniture. The apron could also be used as a flag to signal to the men working the fields that dinner was ready. Little girls following in their mother’s footsteps, would have pinafores over their dresses, which allowed them to help with the chores in a similar manner. Shy little kids could hide behind mom’s apron when company arrived.

And so, before the 20th century, aprons were more about functionality than fashion. Plain and white, they usually went down to a woman’s ankles. They were often made out of flour and feedsacks—in fact, in the 1930s and 1940s, apron patterns were often printed on bags of flour or feed.

In the 1920s, though, women began to give their aprons personal touches, crafting full-length aprons out of more attractive fabrics, with printed, dyed, or embroidered patterns. Suddenly, aprons had a bit of fashion. Still, aprons in the 1940s were solidly practical devices meant to protect clothing—valuable in an age of rationing—and were usually made of cotton in the style of full-length cobbler’s bibs...

The prosperous '50s was the decade when frilly, girlie aprons flourished. The availability of fabrics, particularly new, synthetic ones, as well as the use of appliances like washing machines and dryers that made household chores easier, allowed aprons to join the ranks of frivolous fashion.

The basic style became a pocketed piece of cloth that tied around the waist and only covered the lap. Housewives would use a practical apron in the kitchen, and then, before dinner guests arrived, replace it with a delicate chiffon or organdy apron that might be a little transparent and strangely sexy, meant purely for show.

Television shows introduced the world to a parade of idealized housewives and mothers like Donna Reed and June Cleaver. These shows had a tremendous influence on apron fashions, and the kind of apron patterns women bought. Others sewed a whole variety of aprons in patterns and colors embellished with ribbons, ruffles, or embroidery. During the '60s, aprons had bright colors and polka dots to reflect cheerful Mid-century Modern kitchens.

By the 1970s, however, aprons were seen in some quarters as a symbol of women’s oppression, and so they fell out of fashion. In the post women’s-lib era, stores began to offer unisex aprons with slogans about barbecuing or phrases like “Kiss the Cook.” Souvenir aprons were printed with state maps that could be collected as one traveled the country.

It’s only recently that haute-couture designers like Betsey Johnson and Pierre Cardin have started to offer patterns for aprons, and vintage aprons are becoming collectible. While they aren’t too hard to find, you can imagine that a good percentage of all vintage aprons were just cut up and used as rags.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Flickr Vintage Aprons

Flickr Vintage Aprons

This Flickr photo pool, moderated by Amy Karol, showcases over 1000 vintage aprons from various personal collection… [read review or visit site]

Sewing Machine Collector

Sewing Machine Collector

Geoff and Norma Dickens' reference site on vintage toy sewing machines from the late 1800s. Browse the images alpha… [read review or visit site]

Feeding America

Feeding America

This archive of 76 influential American cookbooks from the late 1700s to early 1900s, assembled by the Michigan St… [read review or visit site]

Sensibility Vintage Images

Sensibility Vintage Images

An extensive collection of photos and ephemera illustrating changing fashion styles from 1795 to 1959. Includes por… [read review or visit site]

Tupper Diva

Tupper Diva

Kristian McManus’ fresh, airtight collection of Tupperware catalogs and related ephemera from the 1950s and 6… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Vintage 1940s Carhartt Denim Bib Work Apron Union MadeVintage Campagnolo Bicycle Mechanics Apron - Denim - Road Mtn Track Fixie BikeRare Vintage Halloween Crepe Paper Apron Usa Dennison 1922-1935 Witch Owl CatVintage Full Length White Cooking Apron With PocketVintage Full Bib White Maid's Apron 1930's Nos #2Vtg 50‘s Fabric Christmas Apron Tablecloth Curtain Material Santa Holly Red Swag**rare Red Christmas Holiday Wish Starbucks Apron Very Nice Rare**Handmde Bib Apron-plus Sz-fall Thanksgiving Turkey Pumpkin Ric Rac-retro-vintageVintage Flour Sack Apron Hand Embroidered With Blue Bird And Flowers From EstateVintage Sheer White Half Hostess Apron Lace & Wedding Ring So CuteVintage Gardening For Victory Apron Wwii Ww2Vintage Bib Lace Ribbon White Apron Collector Costume Tie Back Halloween IdeaStrombecker Vintage Track Apron "kit"Nice Green Starbucks Barista Apron Vintage Full Bib White Maid's Apron 1930's Nos #!Vintage Half Apron White Organdy Lace Trim Eyelet PocketVintage 40s Original Floral Print Cotton Apron Pinny Ww2 Era Handmade Bib Apron-plus Sz-fall Harvest Farm Pumpkin Turkey-ruffle-retro-vintageLot 8 Vintage Hand Made Aprons Gingham Embroidered Excellent QualityLot Of 3 Vintage Aprons Floral/striped 2 Full Bib Style And 1 Pullover ExcVintage White Nylon Half Apron Frilly Lace Trim Vintage Hand Sewn Full ApronVintage Looking Coca Cola Apron!!! Very Cool!!!! Nice Gift For The Holidays!!!Genuine And Authentic Starbucks Coffee Barista Apron - New And Sealed In BagPlus Sz Vintage Style Apron Wedding Bridal Shower Birthday Gift White Purple 37"Lot Of 8 Holiday Vintage ApronsMixed Lot O 9 Vintage Handmade Hand Sewn Aprons Sheer Floral Vtg Antique White Half Apron With Valenciennes Lace Exc2 Vintage 1940s Era Skirt Apron Estate Sale Mammy & Southern Belle Sunbonnet SueVintage Cotton Apron W Cute Corn Field & Scarecrow Print Lot Of 5 Vintage Cotton & Poly Half Aprons Sheer Floral 50s-60sHuge Lot Of 116 Assorted Vintage Doilies Crocheted Lace Linens Runners 1 ApronHandmade Bib Apron-plus Sz-roosters & Chickens Wred Gingham Ruffle-retro-vintageNos Vtg Silver-belle Bib Apron Blue/pink Morning Glory Floral Collar Big RuffleExtremely Rare Vintage Mcdonalds Pizza ApronLot Of 5 Vintage Child's Holiday Christmas Apron Panels Red Blue Snowmen PartsVintage Full Cover Blue Checked Apron 1930's Nos Estate Sale Lot Vintage Table Cloths Doilies Apron And Misc..(stained) Dol 119Vintage~red/white~gingham~cross Stitched Apron~so Nice!Vintage Madame Alexander Tagged Dress, Stockings,apron,shoes,slipVintage White Hostess Apron With White & Green Trim On BottomVintage Holiday, Christmas Apron, Terrycloth, Poinsettias, Holly, BellsVintage Half Apron/black W/yellow Roses & Binding W/chiffon Inserts/84" X 20"Vintage Half Apron/white Chiffon W/california Map Front/52" X 19"Vintage Cotton Apron Home Made Estate Find Turquoise Blue Pink Daisy CalicoVintage Boston Celtics # 33 Larry Bird Green Simulated Uniform ApronLot Of 7 Vtg Aprons ~clean And Crisp ~ The Best Assortment Of DesignsVintage Lot Of 8 1940's - 1950's Organdy Gingham Half Aprons - BeautifulSale Vintage Bib Full Size Apron Pattern Classic 40s Details Sewing FabricStar Wars Vintage Original Kenner Bespin Cloud City Ugnaught ~ Purple ApronRed Multi-color Cotton Christmas/santa On Reindeer Motif Apron--never UsedVintage Reversible ApronVintage Canvas Advertisement Hardware Nail ApronVintage Half Apron/pink Chiffon W/lace Trim/62" X 18"/"i Love Mommy"Vintage Bib Full Apron Childs ? Blue Flower Calico Pleated Skirt Estate FindLot Of 4 Dainty Organdy Vintage Aprons Lace Trim. Lovely!Lot Of 10 Holiday Vintage ApronsVintage Ceramic Cow Bull Steer Head Towel Apron Holder Wall Hook French Country Vintage Carpenters Nail Apron--barcelonas Lumber Mart-wallington Nj-new/unused1950's Vintage Cocktail Apron With Pocket For Your Cigarettes