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 40s Wwii Era Work Wear Indigo Selvedge Denim Apron By "can-pro Corp" Original Vintage Chatty Chathy...blue Gingham Dress, Apron,panties,socks,shoesVintage Retro 1950's Red Check Apron Anthropomorphic Fruits Veggie Heads W/ HatsVintage Hamm's Beer "distributed By Stoffel Beverage" Nail Apron, 8" X 16"Vintage Indigo Denim Barbers Apron W White Top Stitching Barber Shop Strop RazorVintage 4 Great Striped Kitchen Tea Towels W Cannon TagsVintage 1970's Khj 93 Radio Los Angeles Overalls Apron T-shirt Large6 Vintage Unknown Brass Plated Metal Coat Hat Apron Hooks Heart Shaped DecorHandmade Bib Apron-plus Sz- Crisscross Vintage Style-roses Checks & Lace-retro1976 Vintage Coca Cola Apron Coke Adds Life Hot Dog Cart Food Truck ConcessionVintage Gunne Sax Corset Leg O Mutton Quilted Apron Square Bust Crochett TrimVintage Linens Embroidered Crochet Kitchen Apron Shabby Victorian Cottage Retro Vintage Friendship Church Embroidered Signatures Full Bib Apron 1954 Excellant!Vintage Aunt Jemima Mammy Apron Black AmericanaLot Vintage Crochet & Fabric Pot Holders, Apron, Napkin HolderVintage '60s Bird Print Cotton Fabric Apron Kit Mail Order Flock O FunVintage Mrs.beasley Original Collar & ApronVintage 4 Great Striped Kitchen Tea Towels W Cannon TagsHandmade Bib Apron-plus Sz-springtime Floral W Pink Gingham Ruffle-retro-vintageVtg Handmade Childs Half Apron Original Mary Poppins J. Manes Co Disney FabricVintage Macoy Freemason Past Master Masonic Apron White Lambskin Purple BorderVintage Green & White Bib Pinstripe Apron W/pocket & Eyelet Lace TrimVintage Golden State Warriors Sleepy Floyd Jersey Apron Nba Sealed Mint OaklandPlus Size Vintage Style Apron Birthday Wedding Mother's Day Gift White Dots PinkLot Of Six Vintage & Retro Semi-sheer, Sheer And Net Hostess Half ApronsHandmade Bib Apron-plus Sz-fuschia Pink & White Floral On Black-retro-vintageVintage Homemade Ladies Cobbler/bib Apron 3 Lot Retro 1960's-70's Clean Pressed1970's Vintage New Apron~bib~calico Small Flower Print~lace Edging~pocketHand Made Vintage ~kitchen Cottage Chic~ Bib Apron, Fabulous Mid-century Fabric!Vtg 30s 40s 50s Masonic Apron Regalia Brown Leather Carry Case - Retro Handbag Jessie Steele Cherry Topped Cupcake Bib Apron Vintage 50's Style Free ShippingHand Made Vintage ~kitchen Cottage Chic~ Red-white Maple Leaf Print Half ApronLot Of 3 Vintage Half Aprons Rick Rack,gingham,floral,fabulous Vintage Prints EcVintage Apron Pattern Hollywood #b535 Size 12Vintage Photo -lady Apron Dress-big Fish- & Fishing PoleVintage Apron Lot Of 20 Christmas Sheer Terry Cloth Half Bib Style Rick Rack ++Vintage Japanese Indigo Cotton A-16 Maekake Apron Kimono Fabric KanjiPlus Size Vintage Style Apron Birthday Wedding Mother's Day Gift Flowers IvoryHuge Lot Vintage Aprons For Repair, Fabric, Quilt Material Crafts, Doll Clothes Vtg 1954 Novelty Apron Boarder Print Cotton Fabric W/ Tag Montgomery Ward YardsApron Lot Of 18 Vintage Christmas Reversible Godey Half Bib Style Embroidery ++Vtg 1950s Sheer Mint Green Half Apron Flocked Floral Bouquets Pink Lace Trim~ Vintage Flapper Era Full Size Apron Sewing Pattern, Holiday Gift # 9103 Lot Retro 1960's Cotton Terry Cloth Aprons Mushroom+Pristine Crisp White Organdy Vintage Apron Ruffles Ruffles Ruffles!Vintage Blue Flocked Lace Half Apron Never UsedVintage Crochet Hostess Apron/ Shabby Chic/ Handmade/ Unused..lovely!Lot Of 2 Vintage Smock Aprons 1x - 2xPretty Vintage Red Silk Apron With Embroidery For Little Miss Revlon, Jill, Etc.Vintage 1950 Printed Patchwork Floral Pink Full Cotton Apron With PocketLong White W/crocheted Lace Insert Antique?/vintage Half ApronVintage White Apron With Lace And Embroidered Flowers Rhinestones Front PocketHeirlooms Ooak Embroidered Tea Stain Vtg Pearl Button Apron TunicVintage Las Vegas Souvenir Fremont Hotel Casino Dealer Apron Neck Ties AshtrayHydrangeas * Vintage Bib Style Apron Shabby Cottage Chic Blue Hostess OrganzaVintage Pinafore Apron Womens Dress 1970's Gingham Holly Hobbie Patchwork 5 Lovely Vintage Gingham Half Aprons Lot Cross Stitch Organdy Vintage Boho Black Maxi Dress Side Pockets Apron Wrap/ Lagenlook Very Unique EucLot Of Six Vintage Half Aprons € Cow Print Accent Pillows