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 Halloween Crepe Paper Apron, Black Cats, Licensed By Dennison, 1922-35Vintage Japanese Cotton Maekake Grocery Shop Apron Kimono Fabric Kanji ChickenVtg 50s Fab Full Circle "big Skirt" Plastic Apron Vinylized Floral On Polka DotsVintage 36" Patti Playpal White Apron ~ PinaforeNos Vtg Silver-belle Bib Apron Blue/pink Morning Glory Floral Collar Big RuffleHandmade Bib Apron-plus Sz-chickens Sunflowers Green Plaid Ruffle-retro-vintageOld Unique Handmade Vtg Kitchen Bib Apron Embroidered Flowers Basket EmbroideryVintage Full Bib Apron W/ Embroidered Flowers Pickups Puppies Apples Country Handmade Retro Vintage Style Plus Size Bib ApronLovely Vintage Country Style Bib Apron CottonVintage Bib Apron Pink RosesVintage Gardening For Victory Apron ~ Apx. 21"x 17" ~ Wwii ~ K.t Co. Cin O.Vintage Doctor Medical Instruments With Nurse ApronJessie Steele Vintage Aprons Cherry Cupcakes Audrey Apron, Pink Ruffles New Vintage Full Bib Cotton Apron - Tiny Flower Print - Two Pockets - VgcVintage Handmade Cotton Waist Apron~christmas Candy CanesBeautiful Vintage Plastic Light Pink Gold Ladies Hairdo Salon CapeJessie Steele Vintage Aprons Parisian Toile Josephine Apron - Sexy NwtDesign House Vtg Apron Smock Artist Tunic Op Art Bird Flower Blue Green JapanVintage Bib Apron Pink/yellow And Lilac Flowers Box Lot Of 7 Vintage Cotton Bib Aprons From Estate SaleVintage Barbie Clothes Apron And Utensils Rolling Pin Potholder Spoon CookiesSale Vintage Bib Apron Full Size Pattern Mail Order Sexy Sewing Fabric Project Vintage Lot Of Sheer Cotton Half Aprons And 2 Smock Aprons Pastels Retro ColorsVintage Blue Gingham Cotton Smock Ladies ApronVintage Red Floral Handmade Cotton Bib ApronVintage Japanese Work Apron, Maekake, Cool!! P083011Collectors Dream ~ Huge Lot Of 23 Vintage Aprons Disney Mickey And Minnie Mouse Apron Pot Holder Towel Set-vintage Nos-usa-l@@k!Lot 10 Vintage Full Kitchen Aprons W Bibs Nwot Many Colors & PrintsIvory Aqua Bicycle Chevron Ruffle Handmade Retro Vintage Style Plus Bib Apron *rare* Orange Starbucks Apron Via Ready Brew Adjustable Neck StrapVintage Black Americana Cocktail Bar Apron Scottie Too MemorabiliaVintage Full Bib Apron Orange And Blue FloralVintage Lot Of 6 1940's - 1950's Organdy Half Aprons - BeautifulVtg Full Apron Smock With 3 Pockets Black W Cowboy Saloon Motif Dogs Spittoon~vintage 1930's Full Size Apron Sewing Pattern With Flounce & Appliques ~ Copy ~Misc Vintage Barbie Kitchen Items/apron, Toaster, Fork, Serving TraySet Of Five Maroon Used ApronsVintage Christmas Organza ApronVintage Star Wars Action Figure Ugnaught Purple Apron Complete #2Vintage 1960's Carmen Lee Apron Pink Poodle Swan Staircase Cat ButterfliesLot Of 19 Vintage Aprons Lacey Organdy Cotton Christmas Dutch EmbroideredVtg 50s Nip Sexy "whats Cookin Loverboy" Apron Terry Cloth Bbq Bombshell ComicalLot Vintage Little Girls Teen Junior 40s 50s 60's Jumper Dress Gown Apron Skirt Lot Of 6 Vintage Some Sheer Half Kitchen Aprons 1950 - 1960'sLot (5) Bib Cotton Aprons Black Pink Cupcake Apron Preloved Vintage StyleVintage-style Bib Apron**owls**Vintage Souvenir Of Portugal Hand Embroidered Half Apron Black With Huge PocketFabulous Sheer Vintage Christmas Apron Satin Ribbon PetiteSur La Table Child's Vintage Style Kitchen Apron Floral Withappliques New!2 Vintage Aprons - Tatted Trim - 1 Organdy - 1 Cotton - WhiteVintage Sewing Supplies 2 Dritz Apron Clips By Scovill For Easy Apron Making MedVintage Drill Bits W/apron Lot Of 15Vintage Apron American Beauty RosePretty Vintage Lady Design Kitchen /cooking/baking Cotton Apron Red 50's WifeAntique Apron Earlier 1900’s Extra Long Perfect For Reenactment Or CostumeVintage... Apron...canada Dry Ginger Ale..canvas...nice & Bright. Austrian Adjustable Adult Size Apron Astria