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 50s Alexander Kins Wendy Ann Blue Dress With Pink Gingham Apron Vintage Alexanderkins Wendy Sheer Green Velvet Flower Pinafore Apron Dress Vintage Barbie Fashion "barbie-q" Outfit #962 (1959-62) Dress Apron Utensils HatChild's Vintage Kitchen Set - Apron W Toy Food Grinder Rolling Pin, Beater...Vintage 1940's Floral Print Halter Apron Dress / 40's Handmade Maxi Wrap DressXl 7 8 10 Years Swanky Baby Vintage 3/4 Sleeve Apron Dress Ruched Capri Lot Euc!2x Vintage Kenner Star Wars Figure Ugnaught Blue & Purple Apron Complete GreatLot Vintage Aprons Most Handmade 11 Gingham Floral Sheer Waitress Kitchen Vtg Photo Nude Topless African American Woman Wearing Apron Royal Doulton Mugs24 Vintage Retro Aprons - Half Aprons Lot - Sheers, Ginghams, Lace, Long TiesLot 12 Vintage Half Aprons Very Nice Group!Vintage Handmade Cotton Embroidered Childs Waist Apron~bluebird With FloralsVintage 1964 Royal Arch Grand High Priest Masonic Apron, River Rouge MiVintage 40s 50s Kitchen Apron Dress Very Nice Condition Novelty Print House Vintage "apron Pockets Of Kitten Greetings - Stand-up!!" Birthday Greeting CardLot Of 10 Vintage Aprons Embroidered Tatted Gingham Printed Fruit Half SmockVintage Twinkle Frocks Pink Cotton Lawn Girls Dress With Pinafore Apron Sz 3-43 Vintage 1950's Half Aprons Roses Organza Cherries Blue Flowers Rick Rack TrimVintage Handmade Original 1950's Apron Mint Green Floral Pocket Full Length TiesVintage 1950's Full Apron Orange Floral Button Neck Tie Back Pockets Hand MadeLot Of 14 Vintage Aprons Gingham Chevron Christmas Lace Half Smock MoreLot Of 5 Vintage Handmade Aprons Bib Half Waist Needlepoint Applique Xstitch2 Vintage 50's Cotton Half Aprons Crimson Flowers Blue Polkadot Border PrintVintage Ruffled Apron Rick Rack Pocket Yellow Calico Roses 40's 50's Euc Vintage Barbie Candy Striper Volunteer Apron MintHandmade Bib Apron-plus Sz-criss Cross Vintage Style-cherrie Blue Wruffles-retroVintage Canvas Bib Style Nail Apron~ Unionville Lumber Co. ~unionville, MichiganVintage Light Pink Voile Embroidered Bib Full Apron Size MediumVtg Full Bib Kitchen Apron Green White Gingham Check W/ Aunt Jemima PocketsKitchen Apron Red Flowers Flower Garden Design VintageVivid Vintage Violet Purple Roses Green Rick Rack Full Apron Handmade Pocket TieVtg 40s 50s French Blue Indigo Linen Work Chore Bib Selvedge ApronAntique French Country Victorian Coton Monogram ApronLot 13 Vintage Kitchen Aprons Gingham Pin Tuck Cross Stitch Sweet & Mint6 Vintage Aprons LotVintage Style Lovely Handmade Bib Apron Two Pockets2 Vtg Long Denim Shop Aprons 40" Usa All Cotton Sanforized NwotLarge Lot Of 9 Vintage Half Waist Aprons Lots Of Variety & Design So PrettyVtg 70s Owl Novelty Apron Top Boho Hippie Festival Artist Blouse Tunic Smock M-lNew Wrap Around Style Vintage Bib Apron Folksy Fabric Original TagVintage Nail Pouch ApronBlack And White Polka Dot Half Waist Apron Vintage Masonic Apron,lic. Plate Emblem,1947 Budget Letter,1943 War LetterCandy Baker By Jessie Steele Retro Pink Cupcakes Homespun Kitchen Cooking Apron3 Vintage Crisp Clean Cotton Fancy Aprons-rickrack-cross Stitch-trims-embroideryVintage Apron Lot Half Full Smock Assortment + HatVintage Gingham Cross Stitch Half Aprons With Pockets ~ Lot Of 3 ~ Handmade(4) Vintage Cotton Ladies Half Aprons, Batiste & Organdy Floral & Gingham FabricGreece Apron Specialities From Greece With Tzatziki Recipe Collectable ApronVintage Blue & White Cotton Apron W Appliqued FlowersSouvenir Of Canada Popular Places Vintage Half Apron -beaversLot Of 2 Ladies Vintage Aprons Feedsack Fabric Border Prints Girls CottonVintage Hand Made Apron, Clever Adjustable Bib Design, Nice Fabric Floral PrintLot Vintage Coca Cola Apron Red With White Lettering With Solid Brass 7" BottleVintage Towel Retro Cotton Print Half Hostess Trim ApronVintage Cotton Retro Print Half Hostess ApronCute Vintage Flirty Womens Bowknot Kitchen Bib Apron Dress With Pocket Gift ArhMiche Half Apron, Nip, Green, Bag Purse Company, 3 Pockets, White Ties Vintage Barbie Friday Night Date Apron Great1950's Vintage Brown Apron Smock Button Back 3 Pockets Handmade Tie For Sides