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 Comme Des Garcons Wool Apron DressVintage 40s 50s Original Vibrant Orange Rose Print Floral Cotton Apron 8 10 S 4 Vintage Used Boro Japanese Shop Cotton Maekake Apron Kimono Fabric KanjiVintage Womens Full Apron Nwot Unused Sz Lg Blue White Calico Md In Lodi Ca NiceVintage Barbie "barbie-q" #962 (1959-62) Outfit Dress Utensils Pot Holder ApronLot Of 6 Vintage Aprons ~ Belle, Hankie, Sheer, LaceVintage Bib Full Apron Blue Pink Flowers Bright Pink Rick RackVintage Blue White Gingham Checked Half Apron W Teapots Cup Design PocketVintage Ladies White Bib Apron Cut-work Vintage Baby Clothes Lot Of Dresses/bibs/apron/50's4 Vintage Antique Aprons Gingham Half Lot 1940s Estate Sale Find EmbroideredVintage Barbie White Cooking Apron With Pockets Rolling Pin Pot Holder 1960s Euc Vintage Celenese Fortrel Embroidered Apron Fron Dress Blue Size 18 MonthsLong Vintage Shoulder Smock Full Apron Lavender & Yellow Flowers 2 Pockets TiesVintage Apron Yellow W/ Wiener Dogs Dachshund Appliques Half Apron Self TieVintage Apron Scotty Scottie Dog Half 1/2 Apron Scotty Applique Vintage Stanley No. 102 Apron Small Block Plane, Small Sized, Woodworking ToolsVintage Master Free Mason Companion Apron (lamb Skin ) Joseph Fray Good CondVintage Apron White Poodles On Blue Patch Pockets On Blue White Striped Backgrd1920's Vintage Mason Masonic York Rite Officers Apron PurpleVintage Sheer Organdy White Half Apron W Black Floral Print 2 Pocket NewVintage Dollhouse Miniature Bear W/ ApronHtf! Vintage Barbie Dolls Candy Striper Volunteer Apron Mint!Vintage Handmade Sheer Organdy White Half Apron W Floral Appliques PocketVintage Pan Am Airline White/blue Stewardess Apron Velcro Closure~evan PiconeVintage Pan Am Airline White/tan Stewardess Apron Or SmockHandmade Bib Apron-plus Sz- Spring Garden Birds Rose-pink Ruffles -retro-vintageVintage Panam Navy W/red Stewardess Apron, New, Size PetiteHamms Beer Promo Apron VintageLot Of 4 Vintage Aprons Gingham Half & Full Size Estate Sale Good FindCute Vintage Red White Blue Daisy Half ApronVintage Handmade Sheer Organdy Red White Blue Half Apron W Rickrack Pocket Vintage Apron Red Black Disco Mod Phsycadelic 2 Patch Style PocketsVintage Handmade Red White Striped Half Cotton Apron W Front Pocket Vintage Masonic Apron Unused Unwritten On Plus White GlovesHtf! Vintage Barbie Dolls Barbie Baby-sits Apron Mint!Vintage Apron Off White With Small Orange Aqua Half 1/2 Apron Lace Applique Vintage Apron Polynesian Asian Inspired 2 Inset Pockets Pinks Greens Self Tie Sale Vintage Bib Full Size Apron Pattern Classic 40s Details Sewing FabricSale Vintage Bib Apron Full Size Pattern 20s Flapper Style Fabric Craft ProjectVintage Delta Airlines Stewardess Flight Attendant Apron, Socks & AccessoriesVintage Original Star Wars 1980 Kenner Ugnaught Figure Complete Purple Apron5 Vintage Aprons. Gingham, Zigzag, Rick Rack! Pockets. Homemade.Vintage Half Apron, Pretty Farmhouse Fruit Print, Shabby-bright Colors-fruit Vintage Handmade Gingham Teal Aqua Half Apron W Cross Stitch Pocket Vintage Handmade Creation Redschool Days & Home Is Where Cobbler Smock Apron Vintage Sheer Organdy White Half Apron W Tulip Appliques Vintage Handmade Black White Striped Half Cotton Apron W 2 Side Front Pockets Vintage Apron Green W/ Holly Leafs & Candle Appliques Half Apron Self TieLovely 1950 Vtg Crocheted Linen Half Apron Pink Cream Handmade Ribbon Tie BackVintage Boston Celtics Cooking Apron #33 Larry Bird New Missing MittVintage Liberty Of London Pink & Green Oilcloth Apron EucVintage 1960's Barbie Two In Switzerland Pheasant Apron Dresses # 822 - Vg CondValentine's Day Adorable Handmade Vintage Handkerchief ApronVintage Sheer White Organza Apron Long Elegant Flora ApronVintage Cotton Smock Apron-poly/cotton-snapfront-usa Made-bias Trim-pockets-lookVintage Mayfair Baby Girls Dress 0 3 Mos Yellow Floral Lace Apron Style Spring Joe Kenda My My My Apron Red #7485-856983 NewLot Of 35 Black Three Pocket Server ApronsVintage Handmade Red/white Gingham 1/2 Apron With Cross Stitch Detai, Med Sz