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]

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]

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]

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]

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]

Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Vintage Yeti Cycles ApronVintage Half Apron/84" Tie-to-tie & 19" Long/white CottonRitanotiara Magnolia Bow Os Vintage Antique Linen Lace Apron Top Tunic Snw PearlVintage Bib Style Aunt Bea Mayberry Apron Red Gold Multi ColorLot Of 11 Vintage Aprons Full & Half Bib & Cocktail 2 W/ Origional Price TagsVintage Full Bib Apron~ Fabulous Back ~ 2 Pockets ~ Original Tag ~ UnusedHandmade Bib Apron-plus Sz-fall Harvest Farm Pumpkin Turkey-ruffle-retro-vintage13 Fun Pretty Estate Vintage Lot Of Half Aprons~xmas, Fall Leaves,nice Variety~Vtg Levis 501 Single Stitch Denim Work Wear Shop Bib Apron 30x36 On Label NiceVintage Tartan Plaid Wool School Girl Wrap Maxi Pinafore Jumper Apron Dress MVintage Sheer Half Apron White With Ruffled Lace Maid Or Hostess J2711Apron Red Polka Dot Vintage Shabby Floral Frilly Retro Sugarcraft Girls Apron Vintage Cotton Muslin, Floral Red Embroidery, Bib Apron, Petite/small13 Vintage Aprons Lot Awesome Collection Vintage Style Feed Sack Jumper Dress Apron Lace Trim Country Prairie Cat's MeowLot Of 4 Vintage Half Aprons Embroidered Gigham Polka Dot Bric A Brac 1950sVintage Christmas Cotton Print Retro Full Hostess ApronCute Vintage Embroidered Cotton Bib Style ApronHeirlooms Ooak Cream Magnolia Needle Lace Vtg Pearl Button Pocket Apron TunicVintage Lot Of (12) Aprons Some Handmade Cotton Sheer Lace Estate Sale FindVintage Masonic Freemasons Apron (no 68)Lot Of 6 Vintage Aprons, 2 Bib, 4 Half, Blues Floral Print Paisley ReversibleVintage Handmade Bib Apron/84" Tie-to-tie & 78" Long/extra LargeVintage Cannon Cotton Half Apron Matching Towel Rooster & ChickensHandmade Homemade Pink & White Checked Gingham Full Lady's Apron Bib DaisiesVintage Half Apron/62" Tie-to-tie & 24" Long/black SatinVintage Handmade Appliqued "pig" Bib Apron/74" Tie-to-tie & 35" LongVintage Nocona, Tx Masonic Apron Past Master C. E. Ward Co.Huge Lot Of 40 Vintage Kitchen Aprons Full Bib Smock & Half Print GinghamVintage Gray Gingham Chicken Scratch Merry Christmas Half ApronPretty Vintage Design Pink Floral Kitchen /cooking/baking Cotton Apron Lot Of 17 Pretty 1950's -70's Vintage Aprons New & Used - Nice VarietyPlus Sz Vintage Style Apron Wedding Birthday Gift Criss Cross White Dot Red 35wOld Vintage 50s Rayon Full Apron Pinafore Floral Estate Ritz-carlton Laguna Niguel Cooking With The Masters White Apron With PocketsLovely Full Bib Vintage Apron Pink Roses Cotton Tie Back Vintage Full Apron Beautiful Blue Flowers Varigated Crocheted Edging Two PocketsVintage Bib Apron, Side Pockets, Blue W/white Trim, Cotton, 1930's 40's, RetroVintage Christmas Smock-style Apron W/poinsettia Pattern Appears HomemadeVintage Red Gingham Half Apron With Pockets And Rick RackVintage Barbie Bbq Apron W Pot Holder/utensils Very Nice Condition No Reserve5 Terrific Vintage Half Aprons Christmas, Rooster, Denim, Gingham & Terry!Vintage Retro 1950's Half Apron Christmas! Candles Poinsettias Wreaths 1950'sWilliams Sonoma Bib Apron W/tags/100" Tie-to-tie & 36" LongLot 4 Vtg Half Aprons Embroidered Gigham Wedding Handkerchief Bric A Brac 1950sVintage Handmade Appliqued "hot Dog" Bib Apron/76" Tie-to-tie & 35" LongVintage Studebaker Corp Shop Tool ApronVintage Bib Style Halter Campbell's Soup Adult Apron Mmm Mmm Good! With PocketsTrue Vintage Lot 3 Aprons Sheer Fancy Half & Full *nice* Green Starbucks Apron With Adjustable Neck Strap Two Pockets Ab Vintage Sun Telegraph Best Baseball News Advertising Apron NrVintage Barbie Outfit #962 Barbie Q Vgc Complete Tagged With Utensils Apron Vintage Apron Dude Ranch Printed Cowboy & Cowgirl Good ConditionVintage Kitchen Waist Aprons Lot Of 4 Flowers Rickrack Poinsettias2 Vintage Half Fruit Aprons Red Blue Apples Cherries PearsVintage Nba Golden State Warriors Sleepy Floyd Jersey Apron W Oven Mitt - SealedVintage-style Bib Apron**beach Cats**Vintage Party Apron - White Batiste - Card Suites AppliqueVtg Pinafore Apron Handmade Needle-punch Owl Black/white Pockets Darling! (c6)Vintage 1954 Mccall’s #1912-ding Dong School Child’s Self-help Apron Size 6