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 Metal Super Lamex French Butchers Apron Matilda Jane Mjc Vintage Art Fair Platinum Apron Knot Dress Ooak HtfVintage Baby Apron DressVintage Houston Rockets Hakeem Olajuwon Jersey Apron + Nba Basketball Oven Mitt Vintage Odd Fellows Gold Embroidered Black Velvet Apron Heart In Hand *reduced*Vintage Sheer Organza Lace Apron Lot Floral NrVintage Masonic Masters Apron & Case With Hat. Fine WorkVintage Baseball - Racing In The News Sales Cloth Money Apron Antique NewspaperPretty Vintage Purple Roses Granny Full Apron Cotton#886 40s Unused Ladies Apron W/ Apple Pockets-vtg Die-cut Birthday Greeting CardLot 10 Vintage Farm Kitchen Aprons Half & Full Sheer Prints Crochet Lace HolidayVintage Northwest Coast Indian Beaded Apron With Whale And BirdVintage Fawn Togs Baby Girl Apron Dress Size 0-3 Months With Tags!!!! #71093Vtg 1960s National Bohemian Beer "natty Boh" Bbq Apron Chesterpeake Unused!Lot Of 8 Vintage Handmade Aprons~3 Full & 5 Half~Vintage Ww2 U.s. Army Air Corps B-1 Spec 3094 Mechanics 13 Pocket Apron4 Vintage Worn Out Boro Japanese Shop Cotton Maekake Apron Kimono Fabric KanjiVintage Apron Decorated Wth Borderie Anglais LaceWomens Vintage Apron Lot Of 9 Hanky Crinoline Crochet Pink Green Half Size FullVintage Afternoon Tea Apron Embroidered With FlowersVintage Indigo Blue/white Denim Railroad Hickory Striped Shop Apron SanforizedVintage Masonic Freemasonry Leather Apron CaseJessie Steele Courtney Pink Berries Jubilee Kitchen Apron Bib Pockets Cotton NewVintage Pikuran Cache Sexe Fertility Apron Kirdi Cameroon W Africa Beads Cowrie 2 Vintage Aprons * Half Aprons * Applique * EmbroideryVintage Afternoon Tea Apron Embroidered With Strawberries-unusedPristine Vintage White Hostess Apron Blue Edging Accents ButterflyLot 12 Vintage Aprons 6 Full Bib Floral & 6 Half Aprons Floral Check 2 Nos Nwt'sHandmde Bib Apron-plus Sz-crisscross Vintage-mint Green Floral Dots & Lace-retroVintage 100% Cotton Bib Apron Pinafore With Handmade Batten Lace New With TagVintage Lot 14 Hand Crochet Doilies Apron Pot Holders Linens Textiles Lot Of 12 Vintage Handmade Aprons Gingham Crocheted Rick Rack PocketsVintage Japan Porcelain Girl Christmas Apron With Cake Figurine Niko Niko Japan6 Vintage Antique Skirt Half Bib Aprons Lot 1940s Feedsack Rick Rack Estate FindVintage Bib Apron Bright Blue Cotton Print1940's-1950's Kitchen Apron By Marian Martin - Bib Scalloped Hanky Hem Medium Vintage Embroidered Full Apron WhiteNew Adult Apron Black Cat Chat Noir French Cotton France Kitchen Ship From Usa Vintage Schlitz Beer One Chef Apron And Chef Hat CollectorsLot Of 8 Half Aprons - Some Vintage9 Vintage Antique Skirt Half Aprons -crocheted-christmas-sheer Vintage Half Long 39" Apron Off White With Pink Roses, Green Foliage RuffleJust Like Grandma Vintage Aqua Blue Rose Floral Over The Head Full Bib ApronOn Sale Vintage Apron Sewing Pattern Apple Pickin' Gardener Clothespin Tomato Vtg Masonic Freemason Leather Apron 1940 Bible By-laws Booklet Ashlar Lodge #91Vintage Hand Made Cotton Bib Apron Windowpane Fabric Design With FlowersVintage Set Of 3 White Sheer Sexy Nylon Half Aprons Pockets Flocked WeddingHaute Baby Boutique Vintage Handkerchief Hanky Apron Dress Tunic! Cute 24 Mo 2tVintage Blue Kitchen Potholders, Apron, Dishtowel & Napkins Textile LotVintage Kate Marchbanks Mail Order Gingham Cobbler Apron Sz 12 14 16 Side TiesVintage Simple White Long Half Apron Approx. 35.5 Inches LongThe Oliver Tractor C015 Dainty Sheer Vintage White Flocked Nylon Apron Vintage Half Apron Checked Gingham X Stitch Yellow White VioletVintage Handmade Apron With Pockets - Peter Pan Fabric - 1950's 1960'sExtreme Primitive Rabbit Wall Hanging - Vintage Quilt Apron, Sweet AnnieVintage Antique Bib Apron Cute Design Feedsack Fabric Tiny Green Floral Teal Lot Of 8 Vintage Half Aprons-short StylesVintage But Never Worn, Kenton Collection Wrap Around Cotton Apron PinaforeGroup Lot Of 12 Old Aprons