What's Out There: Apron Ties Past to Present

As we can now head down to the store and buy ourselves a useful and stylish apron, we hardly think of its significance. Aprons actually date back many centuries. Until the industrial revolution, and really up until “Fast Fashion” began in the late 1990s, most people did not have many items of clothing. Clothing had to be protected, and made to last. Cloth was woven in the home, often spun from local sheep or flax. Aprons were made of less fabric and could be more easily replaced.

1500s Peasant Aprons

1500s Peasant Aprons

During the Middle Ages, nearly everyone wore aprons and some were distinctive enough to identify a person’s trade. Blacksmiths had leather aprons to protect clothing from sparks. Cobblers wore black aprons to protect clothing from the black wax used on shoes. Blue aprons were commonly worn by weavers, spinners and gardeners. Stonemasons wore white aprons. There were also specialty aprons for seed-sowers and other tasks.

1700s Kitchen Apron

1700s Kitchen Apron

By the 16th century aprons became a fashion statement and were embellished with decorations. For the fashionable elite, these were not used for work, but decorated with expensive lace and embroidery and worn over clothing in public. Trends swung back and forth over the centuries from aprons being solely utilitarian back to fashion statement. The Duchess of Queensbury, a renowned fashionista in the late 1700s, was reported to wear an apron costing £210 in an era where a middle income family earned £100 per year. Many paintings showed women wearing


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Fast forward to the 1940s. During WWII, women were encouraged to “use an apron to suit your job”. The 1944 “US Department of Agriculture Farmer’s Bulletin – Dresses and Aprons for the Home” suggested a dual-use apron. It could be used as a regular apron, or the ties along the sides could be gathered to make it into a basket. This made it easy to gather the produce from the ever-present Victory Garden. As everyone sewed then, there was no need of a pattern. The Bulletin merely provided diagrams of the details, and a photo of the apron in use.

NRockwellEspecially during the 1940s and 50s, the apron represented hearth, home, family, and plenty. After the Great Depression when families lost jobs, were uprooted and members sometimes separated, then the upheaval of WWII, people in the late 40s and into the 50s were longing for togetherness and plenty. Norman Rockwell’s 1943 painting “Freedom from Want” shows this ideal, first espoused by FDR in his 1941 state of the Union speech. Grandma’s apron is front and center.

In the 1960s through the 80s, aprons went kitchy, then out of style as women moved away from the home. Now they’re back, useful again in a DIY world where the craft movement is very popular and there is renewed interest in vintage clothing, canning, and other kitchen tasks. I know I’ll be making myself a basket apron to gather in my garden produce, and I’ll probably make a full-coverage one for my canning. If you want some great ideas, search “Aprons” on Pinterest. There ‘s tons of ideas for all kinds of aprons.

Happy Sewing!

Leigh Wheeler