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 Selvedge Indigo Denim Barn Destroyed Shop Work ApronLot Of (5) Vintage Womens Farm Kitchen Half Aprons Large 15 Pc Vintage Hostess Half Apron Lot Lace,embroidered,gingham,organdy ++10 Vintage Womens Half Aprons - 1950-60s Fun Colorful Fabrics And TrimsDarling Vintage Bib/smock Apron...lots Of DetailLot 11 Vintage Aprons Various Patterns Fabrics Florals Checks EmbroideredVintage Aprons 1 Bib W Flower Pots 1/2 Apron W Rick Rack Black Yellow5 Vintage 1940s Era Bib Skirt Half Apron Estate Sale Buy Lot Cotton FabricLot Of 13 Vintage Half & Full Aprons Gingham Crochet Lace Embroidered MushroomsVintage 1963 Barbie Apron And Utensils Set! Complete!! Mint Condition!Vintage Lot Of Old Kitchen Bib Aprons With Bonus Childs ApronVintage 1940's Bib Apron Floral Cotton Print Original Price Tag -never WornVintage 1980 Star Wars Esb Ugnaught With Apron And Blaster^german^^ Austrian^ 3 Pc. Vintage Dirndl Dress + Blouse + Apron 14Vintage Harrods Knightsbridge Westie Scottie Dog Apparel Pvc/cotton ApronVintage 1950's The New York Times Newspaper Delivery Person Canvas Apron NewsboyLovely Pink Edged Black Embroidered Scrolls & Pastel Flowers Vintage Bib Apron Lot 8 Vintage Aprons Very NiceVintage Houston Rockets Hakeem Olajuwon Jersey Apron + Nba Basketball Oven Mitt Beautifully Embroidered Spring Garden Latticed Fence Motif Bib Apron VintageGenuine Gucci*vintage Bulgaro*brown Suede Apron Toe Lace-up Chukka Shoe 10 DAmerican Bisque Vintage Cookie Jar Art Pottery Pig Apron Flowers Blue Yellow PinVintage Chicago White Sox Apron Cactus Cloth Cute Humorous NosVtg 1950s Unused Wrap Around Dress And Apron Ff Simplicity 1765 Size 14 Bust 32Vintage Full Length Cotton Muslin Apron With Hand Embroidery Floral MotifSale Vintage Bib Apron Full Size Sewing Fabric Pattern Flapper Roaring 20s Craft2 Vintage Aprons With Roosters ChickensVintage Half-apron Blue White Roses Pre-ownedVintage Leather Shop Apron Carpenter's Nailing (or Gardner's Tools) AttachmentVintage Harley Windshied/winter ApronVintage White Cotton Eyelet Bib Apron Pinafore W/front Crisscross Back Long LrgLot Of Six Vintage Ladies Aprons ( Beautiful Very Nice )Vintage Nba Golden State Warriors Apron Sleepy Floyd Jersey Basketball Oven MittVtg 50's Hostess Half Apron Sheer Music NotesVintage Full Feed Sack Apron From Estate Aqua Blue Yellow Orange FloralVintage Retro Handmade Black White Gingham Cotton Kitchen Half Apron-hand-stitchVintage 1960's Unused Sunny Yellow Smock Apron - Pockets/snaps-m/l-orig. Folds5*vintage Ladies' Half Waist Aprons* 1- From 40's Fabric,2- Chicken Scratch*&&Vintage Mid Century Red Polka Dot Apron Trimmed W/redApron Cute Vintage Kitchen Restaurant Bib Cooking Aprons With Pockets Red ApronsBetsey Johnson Vintage Blue Apron Dress 4Lot Of 10 Vintage Half Apron Gingham Embroidery Rick Rack Pockets 1950s 60sVintage Aprons 7 Mixed Lot Nos Prints Dress Stripe Gingham Sheer Floral AppliqueVintage Masonic Apron Badge Zippered Case 1955 Ashlor Chapter High PriestVtg Full Bib Apron Farm Lilac Purple Green Rick Rack TrimLot Of 4 Vintage ApronsVintage White Chiffon Apron W/appliqued Flowers Fancy Entertaining, Up To 2xlApron Red Polka Dot Vintage Shabby Floral Frilly Retro Sugarcraft Girls Apron 1930 Vintage Blue Leather Master Mason Masonic Apron In Frame Pa Estate Orig YqzVintage Cotton Bib Apron~must Have!!Vintage 1920's 30's Womens Dress W/apron Tie SkirtLot Of 12 Vintage Aprons Sheer Applique Embroidered Rick Rack Pockets Circa 1950Handmade Bib Apron-plus Sz-mod Floral Lavender Green Stripe Ruffle-retro-vintageVtg 50s Fruit Of The Loom Half Apron Poodle Tomato Red Polka Dots Rickrack TrimGirls Custom Made Apron Dress Fits Like A 5 Vintage QuiltVintage Handmade Raggedy Ann And Andy ApronClassic Vintage Red Apron Farmhouse Bib, Lace Pocket Farm Animals Retro One SzVintage Humerous Ladies Apron Listing Chores For HusbandVintage Bib Apron And Kitchen Towel Orange/red/tan Cute Vintage Handmade Pink Gingham And Cross Stitches Cotton Apron