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. ...

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]

Sense & Sensibility Patterns

Sense & Sensibility Patterns

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 Cotton Print Kitchen Half Aprons Lot Of 281x 3x Pioneer Colonial Prairie Trek Civil War Dress Apron Women Vintage CalicoRare True Vintage 1950's Swirl Apron Wrap Day Dress Size LEthnic Czech Peasant Apron Moravian Folk Costume Blue Floral Theater Kitchen Vintage Blue Denim Osh Kosh B'gosh Jean Shop Bib Apron Union Made Work Wear1920's Vintage Peach Apron With Embroidery Work Detailing / No FlawsEuc Vintage Bryan Pink White Ruffle Apron Dress Girl 4 Free Ship UsaVintage 30s Vogart Style Scotty Scottie Dog Child's Apron To EmbroideryLot Of 9 Vintage Aprons 1 Bib & 8 Half Handmade Cotton Sheer Unique DetailsVintage 80s Todi Todd Jumpsuit Size Xlarge Ivory Black Long Apron Wide Leg PantAntique Victorian Corset Cover Blouse Camisole Apron Lace Embroidered Teddy 3 PcReversible Vintage Inspired Burgundy Apron With Sweetheart NecklineVintage Gingham Bib Apron Embroidered FlowersVintage 50s Girls Childs Dress Cotton Pinafore Apron 4-5 Blue Eyelet LaceVintage Vtg Baby Girls 6 9 Mos Pink Floral Pinafore Apron 2 Piece Dress Easter Vintage Linens Lot 19 Pc Towels Apron Scarf Doilies Lace Embroidered All Nice!Lot 6 Vintage Aprons Swiss Dot Antique Couple Bib Type Nice VarietyVtg Lot Of 5 Sheer Cotton Gauze Half Apron-pink/white/green/white W/brownVintage Collectible Embroidered Kitchen Apron Tea Pot & Cups Lace Edged PinkRare True Vintage 1950's Swirl Apron Wrap Day Dress Size L 'grape Harvest'Lot 5 Vintage Aprons House-dresses LinenVintage 1800's Victorian Lovely Long Lace Trim Cotton Apron Very Pretty!Vintage Apron Lot Half 1950s+ Embroidered Christmas Floral 6 5 Vintage Antique Half Aprons 4 Vintage Used Japanese Shop Cotton Maekake Apron Kimono Fabric KanjiWile E Coyote Acme Vintage Apron Cooking Apron Sweet Vintage French-inspired White Cotton W/net Filet LaceVintage Belknap Hardware Louisville Ky Canvas Carpenter Apron Nail Tool Belt Vintage Lot Of 4 Half Aprons Vtg 1978 Garfield Quilted Apron Food's Fun Jim Davis United Features Syndicate Toddle Tyke 3t Girl Lace Pink White Stripped Apron Shirt Vintage Front PocketVintage Embroidered Silk Spanish Lady With Apron & Mantila By Elsi GumienVintage Aprons Three In Lot Pink Gingham Blue Gingham Blue & LavenderHand Glittered Christmas Ornament~vtg Img Mother&daughter Apron Sewing LessonVintage Bib Apron Blue Green Floral Sweet!Charming Red Border Print Umbrella Vtg Apron Pockets W/pleat & Ruffle Spring!Vintage Full Bid Cotton Print Kitchen Aprons Lot Of 6Vintage Printed Damask Palace Chef Women Apron Cooking Kitchen Bib Dress Linens3pcs/lot Ladies Vintage Design Flower Printing Cotton ApronHand Embroidered Folk Half Apron ** Made In Portugal **Vintage Coca Cola Collectible Apron ~ NewEn Vogue Apron Vintage Look Buttons Collar Vegetables Green Polka Dots One SizeVtg Lot Of 2 Hand Made Crochet Half Apron Hostess Euc Pastels & Yellow So Pretty2 Vintage B&d Beary Merry Christmas His & Hers Full Bib Aprons Cute Bears NwotVintage Handmade Tie Back Apron W/applesVintage Lot Of 4 Aprons *kitchen*Vintage Blue Cotton Waist Style Kitchen Apron W White Printed Ferns MushroomsVintage Blue W Yellow Flowers Waist Style Kitchen Apron Ruffles Feedsack??Vintage Red & Blue Floral Print Cotton Tea Towel ApronFloral Pinny Lined Vintage Pocket Fancy Kitchen Cooking Apron Chefs WorkwearVintage Bib Aprons Lot Of 21963 Vintage Barbie Baby-sits #953 Pink Striped ApronVintage Cotton Hanky Apron W Strawberry & Blossoms PrintVintage 1950's Apron Red & White Checks 100% Fast Shipping Ugnaught Apron--vintage Star Wars Original AccessoryCute Women Vintage Lace Apron Princess Kitchen Floral Pocket Cooking Apron Dress