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    

1920's Halloween Decorations - Apron - Kazoo - Hats - Mask - Lantern - VintageSunox Steiner Leather Apron Welding Blacksmithing Vintage UsedAuthentic Vintage German Dirndl Dress, Blouse, Apron 3 Pc.set Size 40 (xs)4 Vintage Used Boro Japanese Shop Cotton Maekake Apron Kimono Fabric KanjiVintage 1960's Girls Red Gingham Dress With Apron Montgomery Ward Tiny WorldVtg White Cotton French Maid Pinafore Full Bib Farm Apron Maxi Dress50's 60's Vtg Blue Dress & Apron~~ Kitties Theme" Euc Vintage 50's 2 Pc Lot Full Bib Apron Floral Pattern Red Long Sleeved Vintage Dress W White Pinafore Apron Sz 2t Made In Usa ToddlerVintage Barbie 1960 Babysitter Apron Set With AccessoriesHuge Lot Of 38 Vintage Kitchen Aprons 10 Full Bib 28 Half SlipLot Of 6 Vintage Aprons Whites 5 Half & 1 Bib Maid Wedding ServantVintage Hand Embroidered ApronHandmade Bib Apron-plus Sz-thanksgiving Turkey Fall Harvest Border-retro-vintage4 Vintage Used Boro Japanese Shop Cotton Maekake Apron Kimono Fabric KanjiAntique Edwardian 1920s Vintage White Cotton Wrap Around Bib Dress ApronNew Hostess Apron, Shabby Chic, Counrty Inspired, Retro, Vintage-look, CrisplookVintage Aprons; Grandmas Estate; Lot Of 4 HomemadeVintage Bib Apron ( Green Purple & White) London PrintVintage Aprons; Homemade; Lot Of 4 EstateVintage Masonic Royal Ark Mariners Commander Wcn Lambskin Regalia Apron No 2Vintage Inspired Classic Floral Betty Apron 1950's Baking Cooking Retro NewLot Of Vtg.aprons-1 Bib - 10 Half- HomemadeVintage Pleasant Company Kirsten's Meet Dress And Apron (1986 Germany Edition)Vintage 1932 Rare Flapper Style Apron Pattern-unused-size 36-38... 2 Styles...Vintage Cotton Full Apron With Pockets - Pastel Purple Print Vintage Retro Bib Apron 1940s 1950s Yellow White Ruffled Vintage Apron Sewing Pattern 1920s The Minute Maid Flapper Era Pictorial ReviewChristmas Pretty Girl Apron Cake Kitty Vtg Glittered Greeting Card OrnamentVintage Baby Girl Newborn Apron/pinafore Look Dress Lot Of 3 Vintage Handmade Half Aprons -well Loved!Apron Halter Bib Style 100% Cotton W/1 Pocket Front Pale Blue Green Brown FloralSexy Frilly Pink Nylon And Lace Ruffled Half Apron W/ Ruffled Lace Pocket- Mint Condition! Vintage Fruit Print Red Apron - Cherries, Strawberries, ApplesVintage Disneyland Souvenir Apron 1950s Adventureland Railroad Frontierland RareVintage Girls Germany Octoberfest Dirndl Dress Size 6 128 Austrian Heidi ApronVintage Apron Kenton, Full Length Wrap Pinafore, Patchwork 1970s, Cotton, JapanVintage 50's/60's 2 Pc Lot Full Bib Apron Checked W/ruffles Vtg Handmade Xl Cobbler Smock Top Apron Jadeite Flower Feedsack Material TopVintage 1950 Apron Pattern-size Large-very Stylish-cut-complete...Vintage 1940's Yellow Gingham Full Apron Lace & Embroidery Kitchen Textile Nice!Lot Of 3 Vintage Handmade Half Aprons To Include ChristmasVintage Bib Apron Handmade W/embroidered Flowers""denim - Heavier Full Cover Apron"' - NwotVintage 1964 Barbie In Holland #0823 White Cotton Apron-excellentVtg Christmas Apron Poinsettia Red White Green Handmade Cotton 20" Long Vintage Hand Embroidered Folk Design Kitchen Half ApronVintage Original Star Wars 1980 Kenner Ugnaught Figure Complete Purple ApronVintage Red Half Apron White Rick Rack Pockets - Floral Victorian Design - FarmPretty Vintage Design Pink Floral Kitchen /cooking/baking Cotton Apron Vintage Hand Crocheted Apron Unique Vintage Handmade Half Apron Yellow With White Plaid 2 PocketsVintage Child's Apron Animals & Alphabet Adorable! Vintage Plastic / Vinyl Sheer Yellow With White Floral Bib Apron Vintage 1940s Hand Crochet Pineapple Blue Red White Fancy Bib ApronVtg Leather Apron W/ Pockets Loops For Tools Woodwork Art Crafts Work MachinistVintage White Sheer With Red Rick Rack Trim Silver-belle Waitress Apron 50'sLarge Lot Of Vintage Aprons Vintage 1940's - 1950's Full Wrap Cotton Apron Yellow Orange Floral On White #6Vtg Apron Micro Pleated W/ Flare Half Length Skirt