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    

Vtg Heavy Canvas Carpenter's Apron Unused W Tags Ayers Lumber Redkey, In C1940s4 Vintage Worn Out Boro Japanese Shop Cotton Maekake Apron Kimono Fabric KanjiVintage 1960s Lambskin Masonic Master Apron Toye, Kenning And Spencer Plus CaseVintage Blue Fish 1995 Apron, One Size, Black, Spectacular Prints!Vintage Blue Fish 1995 Apron, One Size, Brown, Spectacular Prints! Lot Of 15 Vintage Aprons Smocks Gingham Flowers Pockets Flannel Sheer SantaVintage Japanese Indigo Cotton Maekake Sake Saki Apron Kimono Fabric Folklore Vintage Nos 1940's-1950's Auto & Truck Floral & Brown Spare Tire Apron Accessory7 Vintage Aprons 3 Full 3 Half And 1 Childs Pretty Vintage Cream/blue 1950s Nylon Pinny ApronMatilda Jane Apron Skirt Girls Size 8 (vintage)Vintage Handmade Full Bib Smock Kitchen Apron Cotton 1960-70 Yellow Floral LargeVintage Bib Apron~floral Feedsack Cotton~red-blue-yellow Retro Kitchen ChicVtg/old Studebaker Automotive Division Shop Tool Apron Thick Canvas Pockets GucToddler Girls 18 Month Dress New Vintage 2 Pc Pinafore Dress Set Apron EasterVtg 18mths Embroidered Puppy Apron Baby Girl Dress Hand Embroidered Vintage Bib Apron With RickrackLot Of 12 Vintage Aprons Waist Gingham Pockets HostessPlus Sz Vintage Style Apron Wedding Birthday Gift Berry Red Cream Floral 46"wLot Of 6 Vintage Half Aprons Greens Floral Print Check HankieVintage Embroidered Half ApronPlus Sz Vintage Style Apron Wedding Birthday Party Gift Large Dot Red 37"wVintage Estate Fresh Full Kitchen Bib Apron W/ Side Pockets - Red Roses TrellisVintage Full Bib Over Head Apron~purple Aqua Teapot Stein Print~heart Pocket~eucBeautiful Vintage Ladies Cotton Batiste Frech Filet Lace Hand Embroidered ApronMatilda Jane Apron Skirt Girls Size 6 (vintage)Vintage 1947 Post War Sweetheart Apron Pattern -one Size- Cut & Complete # 4 Vintage 1960-70 Apron Over Head Full Bib Flowers Green Pink Blue Cotton RetroVintage Vogart Crafts Apron Stamped For Cross Stitch Or Ballpoint Painting NipPlus Sz Vintage Style Apron Wedding Birthday Party Gift Floral Peach Color 37"wVtg Blue Velvet Masonic Apron Embroidered Bullion Wire Fringe Hour Glass 441 Vintage 1950 Ladies Art Deco Style Apron Pattern - Unused - Complete- # 5Vintage Green Gingham Hand Embroidered Half Apron/72" Tie-to-tie & 19" LongVintage Blue Gingham Hand Embroidered Half Apron/86" Tie-to-tie & 22" Long2 Vintage Gingham Half Aprons With Embroidery Cotton Blend Blue & GreenLot Of 6 Vintage Gingham Embroidered Aprons: 5 Half & 1 SmockPlus Sz Vintage Style Apron Wedding Birthday Party Gift Blue Lavender Roses 46"wVintage Half Aprons Lot Of 5 Nice Variety Handmade, Pretty PocketsDarling Vintage Red And White Polka Dot Apron With RufflesLot Of (4) Vintage 1950's Skirt Half Bib Aprons Fancy Embroidered Gingham Vintage Houston Rockets Hakeem Olajuwon Jersey Apron + Nba Basketball Oven Mitt Jessie Steele Courtney Pink Berries Jubilee Kitchen Apron Bib Pockets Cotton NewVintage Poodle Apron Sheer Blue 1/2 Apron With Poodles5 Vintage Antique Skirt Half Bib Aprons Fancy All Red Lot 40s Feedsack Rick Rack1950's Vintage Ladies Apron~ Pretty Pink Roses Cotton Fabric With Tiny Pleats ~ Lot Of 6 Vintage Aprons, Red Stripes, Plaid, Blue Flowers, Green Flowers, MoreVintage Floral Design Apron Cotton Ivory, With Red, Green, Floral DesignVintage Mid Century Half Apron Ladies Handkerchiefs Tulips Flowers Ribbon Vintage Blue Gingham Hand Embroidered Half Apron/76" Tie-to-tie & 21" Long8 Vintage Half Aprons 1950-60s All Colors And Patterns Good FabricVintage Purple Gingham Hand Embroidered Half Apron/90" Tie-to-tie & 23" LongVintage Pink Gingham Hand Embroidered Half Apron/64" Tie-to-tie & 24" LongVtg Aqua Print Cotton Half Apron W/1 Pocket/52" Tie-to-tie & 19" LongVintage Bottle Apron Hula Skirt Made In Hawaii New UnopenedVintage H'made Long Bib Apron W/embroidery FloralsNew Jessie Steele Women's Aprons - Pink Magnolias Carmen Apron - Vintage Retro8 Old & Vtg Nail Apron Carpenter Lot Lumber Yard Pouch Advertising True ValueLot Of Aprons Full Half Vintage New Lot Of 15 Christmas & More Vintage Brown Leather Large Apron Satchel - East Cheshire Lodge No 5432Handmde Bib Apron-plus Sz-crisscross Vintage-cherries Wdots & Lace On Blue-retro