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 Pink & White Hand Crocheted ApronOriginal Vintage Yellow Tonka Sandloader Construction Working Apron E54Vintage Primitive Kitchen Aprons All Kinds & Colors Feed Sack Fabric Lot Of 30Sweet Vtg Retro 50's 60's Christmas Half Apron Shiny Brite Ornaments Vgc~3 Beautiful Vintage Christmas Aprons Santa, Poinsetta, Pine Sprig W/ Candle ~Lot Of 5 Vintage Gingham Check Aprons W Cross Stitch EmbroideryHandmade Bib Apron-plus Sz-thanksgiving Turkey Harvest Lace Ruffle-retro-vintageHandmde Bib Apron-plus Sz-thanksgiving Turkey Gobble Wobble-ruffle-retro-vintage3 Vintage Cotton Print Aprons2 Vintage Pinafores/pinafore/apronVintage Lot Of 14 Aprons Full/half- Fancy, Plain, Floral, Handmade, Store BoughtLot Of 13 Vintage ApronsLot 10 Vintage Hand Made Aprons, Bibs, Half, Cotton, Organza,gingham & MoreVintage 1950s/60s "beech Tree" Full Cotton Pinny ApronVintage 1950s/60s Full Cotton Pinny ApronVtg Apron/skirt/mexican/embroidered/tribal/ethnic/handmade 4 Pockets2 Vintage Gingham Check Aprons W Cross Stitch Trim5 Vintage Cross Stitch Embroidered Half Waste Gingham Aprons NiceVintage 50's 60's Christmas Half Apron Christmas Trees Shiny Brite OrnamentsVintage Fall ApronVintage 1950s Full Cotton Pinny ApronLot Of 3 Vintage Aprons Fruit Of The Loom With Tags Smock Bib Farm No ReserveVintage Blue & White Hand Crocheted ApronVtg Butterfly Blue Wing Cameo Picture~art Deco Silhouette Lady Apron By TreeVintage 50s Womens Wrap Housedress Pink Blue Nursery Design Swirl Label ApronVintage Tinted Art Silk Embroidered 1920's Apron Lady Belle Appliqued Fan Lace SVintage 1960's Barbie Skipper Pink Striped Dress - Matches Baby Sitter ApronVintage Full Aprons Handmade Full Coverage Handmade Bib Apron-plus Sz-thanksgiving Turkeys & Pumpkins-ruffle-retro-vintageVtg Advertising Apron Lot Ephrata Lebanon Pa Canvas Hardware Store Lumber 50/60sVintage 2 Kitchen Bib Cotton Aprons Paisley And Plaid!Kliban Cats Cheesecloth Apron Momcat Mom Cat Used Good Condition Rare VintageVintage Coca Cola Vendor Apron6 Vintage Gingham Half Aprons All Colors Some Embroidery And Cross Stitch Vintage Primitive Kitchen Apron Weiner Dog Dachshund Embroidered Adorable!!!Lot Of 12 Vintage ApronsVintage Handmade Bib Apron Christmas Basket Of Poinsettia/holly Berry -festiveVintage Feedsack Fabric Bib Apron Wr Mills Mcpherson Kansas For Goodness SakeVintage 5 Cotton Kitchen Aprons Dotted Swiss Pleats Gingham OrgandyVintage 1960s Half Pinny Apron CottonVintage 1960s Half Pinny Apron CottonDress Vintage 5 Aprons ( 2 Lots)Lot Of 4 Vintage Aprons - Christmas - Hostess - Organza - CottonVintage Schlitz Beer Cotton Apron & Chef's Hat New In Package 1970's ?Vintage Lot Of 11 Aprons (three Full, One Smock, The Rest 1/2 Aprons)Vintage Barbie Baby-sits #953 - Many Accessories With ApronVintage Howard Johnson's Waitress ApronVintage Fabulous Orange & Black Waist Apron Incredible Pleats!Vintage 4 Cotton Kitchen Aprons 1 Frock Poodle 2 Bib 1 WaistVintage Pinafore Apron Dress By Design House2 Vintage Cotton Fabric Panels Christmas Themed Apron Pre Cut 6 Vintage Aprons 3 Full And 3 Half1963 Vintage Barbie Baby-sits #953 Pink And White Striped Apron2 Piece Full Body Antique Leather Butcher Apron Vintage Unique CollectibleVintage 1950s Satin Half Pinny ApronVintage Barbie Q Outfit- Pink Dress, Chef Hat, Apron, Utensils, Potholder, ShoesVtg Ansell Edmont Industrial Denim Work Apron Usa MadeFull Bib Baking Apron Country Roosters W Polka DotsVtg Jane Clark Dark Peach / White Trim Bib Apron With TagsVintage Lot Of 5 Aprons. Half Aprons And Full With Snaps. Nice Lot.