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    

Original Vintage Leather Masons Masonic Case With Key And ApronVintage Halloween Apron Party Chef Crepe Paper 40s Antique Ephemera Black CatCharming Vintage 1940's Wooden Cat W/ Bow & Apron Ramp Walker - Wilson Walkie Vintage Christmas Apron Deer Ornaments Bows Pines Candy Canes Scarce Fabric MintD Vtg I.o.o.f. Ritual Apron Odd Fellows Fraternal Ceremonial Sybols Masonic9- Vtg Clean Gingham Check Aprons W/ Cross Stitch Embroidery Variety Colors ExucRare Made In Uk Vintage Spode Christmas Tree Apron & Tea Towel New In PackageVintage 40s Original Floral Print Cotton Apron Pinny Ww2 Era By DandyVintage 1800's Knights Templer Masonic Apron With Ribbon And Sterling EmblemsSweet Vtg Embroidered White Christmas Bibbed Apron Poinsettia Floral Candle ExcHuge Lot Of 20 Vintage Country Hand Sewn Fabric Material Aprons 19 Halves-1 FullLot Of 5 Vintage Gingham Cross Stitch Chicken Scratch Half ApronsVintage Pink & White Flowers Full Apron Unused W/ TagsVintage Antique Skirt Victorian Edwardian Era Apron Hand Crochet Lace DrawnworkChristmas Trees Red White Ornaments Handmade Retro Vintage Plus Bib Apron Vintage Linen Bib Apron, Lace Trim And Embroidered, Full Front Coverage ApronVintage Full Bib Blue Floral Cotton Apron W/ Silinstag ~ Never UsedVintage Linen Bib Apron,victorian Rose Pattern Fabric, Full ApronVintage White Cotton Madeira Half Apron "unused"Vintage 1944 Handmade Barkcloth Christmas Apron/vtg Christmas CorsageGrandma Moses Fabric Barkcloth At The Well Barnyard SceneVintage 1930s Wall Street Journal Wsj Newspaper News Boy Newsboy Canvas ApronVintage Japanese Indigo Cotton Maekake Fish Paste Apron Kimono Fabric Folklore Vintage 1950's Mccall's 2221 Circular Apron, Circular Tea Cloths And HouseholdVery Pretty Vintage Un-used Waist Half Apron, Calf Length "white Eyelet" 1960'sVintage Apron---lot Of 2--very Prety-***Vintage Christmas Waist Apron Candles And Candy CaneWholesale Funny Sexy Novelty Kitchen Cooking Spider-man Aprons Men Women GiftHolly Hobbie Apron Oven Mit Set True Vintage Orange And Yellow Love StirrinWomens & Mens Novelty Funny Kitchen Cooking Superman Aprons Bib Bar Party DressVintage 50's Dog Christmas Holiday Apron Puppy Ornaments Holly & Bells So Cute!100% Cotton Apron Mother & Daughter Mommy & Me Vintage Christmas Ladies Aprons/never Worn!Vintage Christmas Apron Lot 40s 50s Mid Century Mod Red Satin Sequin + Music VgcVtg Red Sheer Linen Panel Christmas/holiday 1/2 Apron W/candles Holly BowVintage Cotton Full Apron Blue Roses Fabric Large Size Vintage Plastic / Vinyl Peach With Blue Flowers & Green Leaves Layered Apron Jessie Steele Retro Brown & Pink Polka Dot Josephine Apron, Vintage New With TagFull Length Christmas Bib Apron With Ruffles Size MediumOld 1940's Vintage Handmade Cotton Half Apron Black Americana MammyVintage Christmas Apron, Full Apron, Retro Style Snow Flakes And Polka DotsLot 13 Vintage Aprons Half Apron Full Dress Pinafore Mcquiddy Souvenir Sheer Bib Vintage Chicago Sun Times Paperboy Apron Lot Of 4 Vintage Christmas Aprons Accordion Pleat Mint Green PoinsettiaSale Vintage Bib Apron & Pansy Potholder Full Size Sewing Fabric Pattern 30s 1ydNovelty Sexy Funny Kitchen Cooking Wonder Woman Cosplay Aprons Bar Party DressVintage Handmade 1940's Farm Wife Full Apron (#11)Vintage Handmade Printed Santa Christmas Cotton ApronRetro Christmas Apron Santa Handmade 1950'sFull Red Vintage Christmas Apron Bottom Ruffle Top Padded Bib Holly & Berries Cute Vintage Kitchen Restaurant Bib Cooking Apron With Pocket Free ShippingApron Red Polka Dot Vintage Shabby Floral Frilly Retro Sugarcraft Girls Apron Vtg 40s 50s Red Gingham Embroidered Hearts Cotton Folk Art Apron IndiaBeautiful Vtg Full Length Scenic Lace Apron, Primitive Shabby Victorian CarriageHandmade Bib Apron- Plus Size- Retro Vintage11Vintage Depression Era Farm Wife Full Apron New With Tag (#40)Vintage Bitch Bitch Bitch Red Apron Now! Designs San FranciscoVintage Blue And White Plastic Bib Apron!Antique Vintage Batiste Cotton Lace Tiered Apron 125 Vintage Clothes Pins With Apron-style Clothes Pin Bag