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 50s Work Wear Denim Apron Selvedge Hercules Sears Union Indigo RareVtg 50s 1950s Plaid Apple Rockabilly Hippy Tunic Apron Mini Festival Dress L-xlVtg Lot Barbie Sears Exclusive Glamour Group Dresses Pak Purses Apron Hat Shoe++Vintage 70's Novelty Nautical Print Wrap Apron Style SundressVintage 50's Hercules Indigo Denim Work Shop Apron Dark Selvedge Union MadeVtg 50s Animal Folkart Novelty Print Rockabilly Smock Apron Dress Top Tunic L-xlAntique Edwardian..maids..cooks Apron..white Cotton & Lace..vintage Bib PinaforeVintage Japanese Indigo Cotton Treasure Ship Maekake Apron Kimono Fabric KanjiVintage Japanese Indigo Cotton Maekake Apron Kimono Fabric Kanji Fuel AdvertiseVintage Bib Apron Embroidered Roosters Never UsedHuge Lot Of Vintage 50's 60's 70's Half Aprons - Colorful - Floral - CheckeredVintage Worn Out Japanese Brown Cotton Maekake Apron Kimono Fabric Kanji FarmerDarling Vintage Dirndl ApronVintage Lot Of 5 Full Aprons Embroidered & Prints Printed 1950's -60's Vintage Half Apron Sheer White Embroidered Bow Ruffles Wedding Nylon W/pocketNos Tag Vintage 50's Pink & Black Atomic Abstract Novelty Print Full Bib ApronVintage Los Angeles Rams Bbq Apron, La Rams, NwotStar Wars Vintage Original Kenner Bespin Cloud City Ugnaught ~ Blue ApronVintage ApronGunne Sax Vintage Dress- Blue W/ Ivory Apron Front-corset Lacing- Size SVintage Lot 24 Aprons Assorted Fabrics Colors 1/2 ApronsVintage Dodgers Apron, Rare 1950 Souvenir Apron, Los Angeles BaseballVtg White Ceramic Cow Bull Head Towel Apron Rack Holder French Country Wall Handmade Bib Apron-plus Sz- Crisscross Vintage Style-blue Wild Rose Floral-retroVintage Aqua Gingham Apron With Fancy Embroidery Southern Belle PocketVintage Red & White Plaid Bib Style Apron W Woven PrintSmall Lot Of Vintage Kitchen Fabrics - Aprons - Pot HoldersVtg Apron Pink White Swiss Dots Black Rick Rack And Trim Pink Apron Vintage Handmade Gingham Smocked Full ApronHandmade Bib Apron-plus Sz-beautiful Garden Birds Rose-pink Ruffle-retro-vintageVtg Distressed Burlington Union Made Sanforized 34 X 30 Overalls W \\ ApronLot Of 5 Vtg Half Aprons One Handmade Colorful Floral Roses Retro Pockets CleanVintage Ladies Kitchen Apron Green Bows Neck Tie Long Apron Retro Mid Century Vintage Ana Stewardess Cabin Crew Uniform ApronVintage Knott's Berry Farm Apron - Ghost Town!Vintage Kc Knights Of Columbus Apron, Cute Saying, Drink PocketVintage Battenburg Lace ApronJapanese Apron Maekake Navy Lucky Cat Maneki NekoVintage Handmade Barkcloth Floral Cotton Chicken Feed Apron Clothes Pin ApronVintage 1930's Full Farmhouse Brown Print Apron/pockets-ties S/m6 Pc Vintage Half Apron Lot -sheer OnesTwa Airlines Clipped Wings Vintage Apron With PocketVintage Shabby Chic Sheer Swiss Dot W/flowers And Rick-rack Half Apron Lot Of 7 Half Aprons-2 Child SizeVintage 1973 Barbie United Friend Ship Airplane Plates & Apron AccessoriesVintage Linen Blend Half Apron/60" Tie-to-tie & 19" LongVtg 40s-50s Full Bib Slip Over Head Apron~blue~ Early Fabric ~butterfly Print Vintage Cotton Print Half Apron W/zig-zag Trim/78" Tie-to-tie & 21" Long1959 Vintage Barbie-q Outfit #962 White Apron - ExcellentVintage Bib Apron Green And White GinghamLot Of 18 Vintage Kitchen Aprons - Half, Full, Smock - Nice VarietyVintage Servisair Uniform Apron Cabincrew StewardessLot Of 10 Vintage Half Aprons, Paisly, Sheer, Xmas, Scalloped, Flowers, PocketsVintage Hand-made Embroidered Pinafore Apron Blue White Floral Embroidery 1940'sLot Of 6 Vintage Aprons Bib And Smock Style Feedsack Crochet Etc.Vintage Spoon Rest Girl" I'm Your Little Helper" 1970's 8" Pink Dress Apron Vintage Half Aprons Lot Of 3Vtg 80s Teal Avant Garde Colorblock Pinafore Apron Harajuku Bib Dress W/sidecutsVintage Vinyl Full Apron White Flowers Green Trim Vintage Full Bib Crochet Ladies/women Apron Kitchen Decor