My mother had a navy blue smock apron made of a sturdy cotton and decorated, Pollock-like, with exuberant blobs and smatterings collected from countless domestic projects. She used it for heavy work——for weeding, tackling the basement, and repainting bedrooms. She also had a green bib apron with capacious front pockets and tattered strings that had been savaged by our dog Crackers. This apron carried more odiferous decoration: a splodge of tomato sauce here, a spot of gravy there, a trickle of molasses running down the bosom. There was also a blue and white striped apron reminiscent of butcher’s attire and a drawer full of folksy waist aprons lavishly embroidered and rarely used. My own apron at that time was a voluminous smock with strings that tied at the back of the neck. I used to love wearing this apron with my mum. I felt mature and important; I was part of her world. Unwittingly, when I wore that apron I also became part of a circuitous and weighty history, for upon closer scrutiny this simple article of clothing provides a rich tapestry for the story of changing social conceptions of cooking, women, and the home.
For much of its history, the apron was thoroughly utilitarian. Before the industrial revolution reshaped homes and work, aprons were vital for many daily chores. In 1800s America, for instance, at a time when most people were farmers, aprons served a multitude of purposes: they protected the wearer’s dress while she planted potatoes or performed the weekly clothes wash; they carried apples from the orchard or vegetables from the garden. Given this heavy use, aprons were plain and sturdy, often stitched from old sacking or patched together from scraps. Only rich women in cities, whose most strenuous work consisted of managing servants, could afford to wear decorative aprons. And wear them they enthusiastically did. Perhaps in an effort to distance themselves from common farmers or their female employees, these wealthy ladies began sewing elaborate, fanciful, and often decidedly impractical aprons.
During the 20th century, with rapid urbanization and technological changes that lessened the burden of housework, a growing middle class of women joined their wealthy counterparts and began stitching extravagant collections of aprons. It became a way for women to articulate housework. In the 1950s at the apex of this fashion craze women appeared to have an apron for every task—for sewing, cleaning, gardening, casual cooking, and entertaining. Many women kept their best apron clean and pressed in a drawer to be whipped out and donned when company unexpectedly arrived. God forbid the neighbors catch you cooking in a dirty apron!
Thus this humble workday garb morphed from function to fashion. In this process it became a symbol of that paragon of mid-20th century feminine virtue—the good housewife. Arrayed in a comely apron, she could serve dinner to the kids and then, at the sound of hubby’s footsteps, she could tug the strings and remove her apron to reveal something sexy underneath. An aproned angel in the kitchen and a spotless scarlet woman in the living room?
And then the 60s arrived. In the struggle for a woman’s right to develop her own career beyond the kitchen sink, the image on a be-aproned housewife lost her shine. A potent symbol of domesticity the apron was also dethroned as women labored at the monumental task of cleaving the words ‘house’ and ‘wife’ apart. In the 1960s women may have burned their bras but a decade later they were also burning aprons, metaphorically at least.
So how did the sneaky devils reappear? Why do I and many of my contemporaries—all strong, confident, self-determining women of substance—embrace this old symbol of domestic serfdom? Today, every kitchen shop boasts a stock of aprons in every style imaginable. Looking around, it is hard to avoid the impression that aprons have become a celebratory garment rather than a symbol of women’s subjugation. One reason may be that my generation did not fight the good fight in the 60s and 70s so we have the privilege of forgetting. None of us were admonished by popular imagery and tradition to wear aprons and they were never a object of rebellion.
Furthermore, following the cyclical tendency of fashion, my generation is going wild for old kitchen projects that were all but forgotten 20 years ago: from baking bread to brewing beer, many of us are obsessed with kitchen DIY. It is a trend has many roots (a mistrust of industrial food, a desire to work with the hands and gain rest-bite from a virtual world, a curiosity about these fading skills) but it is clearly visible in blogs, articles, the proliferation of community gardens and cookbooks on caning and cheese making. These DIY projects are often elaborate and messy endeavors. It is easy to forget, in all this talk of symbol and status, that aprons have always retained an element of functionality. As a profoundly clumsy cook, I find that donning an apron before entering the kitchen is simply good sense. It pays off in a lighter laundry basket.
My love of aprons has grown since that first smock and I now have a sizable collection: frilly and frivolous garments such as a flamenco-style apron—all ruffles and polkadots—that I bought at a tourist shop in Granada; simple everyday aprons; and sturdy working aprons built to withstand culinary mayhem, and often the literal strewing of blood and guts. I cherish them all. Slipping on an apron is a ritual in itself, a moment of marking. Now, I am ready to cook. As the Spanish saying goes, estoy en mi propia salsa. I am in my own sauce, and happily so.
Note: The history of mens aprons is simpler yet no less symbolic. Men have long worn aprons for a variety of occupations. Butchers, bakers, chefs, carpenters, blacksmiths—each had a distinctive style of apron. They were dignified and serious. In contrast to women’s aprons, they symbolized a real and respectable profession. In America of the 1950s it became popular for men to take on the manly side of cooking, spending summer weekends barbecuing in the back yard. Aprons for these hobby cooks became popular, but they were markedly different from the decorative outfits worn by their wives. Male aprons sported silly phrases which served to distance themselves from the drudgery of everyday food preparation. Today, these glib aprons still reflect certain social attitudes to man’s role in the kitchen. Here are a few interesting specimens I discovered:
Will grill for sex
I can light your fire
Caution, extremely hot
Real men don’t use recipes
In dog beers I’ve only had one
I like cougars . . . .medium rare
Who’s your daddy
I turn grills on