Aprons in the United States
Aprons have been used in North America throughout its recorded history by both the Native Americans and later peoples. The kitchen apron fell somewhat out of favor in the 1960s after its rise to celebrity in the 1950s when it became the post-war symbol for family and domesticity. People started doing their work without an apron entirely or they choose to wear a bib apron (its unisex, simple, boxy design represented the opposite of the 1950s housewife). The bib apron, also known as the "French chef's apron" or "barbecue apron", remains the dominant apron on the American market and is offered in a multitude of variations in colors, detailing, and fabrics.
Early American aprons
Native Americans wore aprons for both practical and ceremonial purposes. Early female settlers wore plain, long white aprons. Later, Quaker women wore long and colorful silk aprons.
As cities in New England grew, more elaborate options began to appear. Upscale American women in the 18th century wore embroidered aprons that sometimes dipped at the front of the waist (so as to not obscure the bodice of a gown).
In England and the United States in the 1800s, both maids and wealthy women wore aprons. Servant aprons were traditionally white and were supposed to be "clean, neat, and appropriate." The maid's clothing was meant to follow the fashion trends of the time while also representing her employer's class status and wealth. Some aprons had lace, embroidery, or pleating work on them to add a bit of sophistication if they were servants who regularly appeared in front of house guests.
Wealthy housewives of the time were also expected to show off their family's status in society and their commitment to domestic life. They did this by also wearing aprons, though the aprons were far more elegant and expensive than the maid's white cotton apron. Popular materials included black lace, satin with chenille borders, shot silk, and satin. An apron of this caliber was necessary with a morning dress during the early nineteenth century for a woman of status. During this time, "never was there a greater rage than for aprons (of satin and shot silk) for morning or afternoon." The elegant and colorful apron was also a symbol that a woman had the funds to be swindled by traveling merchants into purchasing "a gaudy ribbon or shining pair of scissors."
Another symbol that the extravagant apron represented was the "fig leaf," as worn by Eve in the Garden of Eden. Women termed their ornamental aprons "fig leaves," thus drawing attention to their "sexual region."Small decorated aprons were one example of "suggestive fashion." According to at least one private journal entry, men of the time were reputed to loudly exclaim, "Oh my!" upon spotting a woman in a "fig leaf" apron, sometimes blushing profusely and fainting on the spot.
Aprons for both maids and housewives were not just worn in the home, but out on the town as well. The painting "Scene in Frankfurt Fair, April 1835. Part of the Line of Stalls Extending Along the River Mayn" by Mary Ellen Best shows a mother in a highly decorated and colorful apron and her daughter in a green pinafore apron. They are out shopping in a market and through the appearance of their stylish aprons, they are exhibiting their upper-middle-class status as well as their ties to female domesticity.
From 1900 through the 1920s, well-heeled women wore ornate, heavily embroidered aprons. Aprons of the 1920s mirror the style of the times: loose and long. Often closed with a button and adorned with needlework, many aprons styles emerged during this era and stores began selling patterns and kits to make and adorn aprons at home. Aprons of this period followed the silhouette of dapper fashions—long, with no waistline.
Aprons: 1930s – 1940s
The “Hooverette” or “Hoover apron” emerged in the 1930s, named after the man in charge of the U.S. Food Administration at the time, Herbert H. Hoover. Women working outside the home wore whatever protective garments their jobs required, including coveralls, smocks, or aprons. At home, they worked in full-length aprons with hefty pockets and a cinched waistline that was often decorated with buttons, pockets, and contrasting colors.
Aprons became plain during the Great Depression. Since fabric was scarce, women would make aprons out of flour and animal-feed sacks to protect their clothing. Pinafore aprons, or "pinnies" as they were affectionately called, began to gain popularity. Dorothy famously wore a blue and white gingham pinafore in The Wizard of Oz.
1950s apron advertisement
Post-war family values made the apron the symbol of home, family, mother and wife. As sewing machines and cloth became available, aprons—both commercial and homemade—became the uniform of the professional housewife.Magazines from the 1940s and 50s feature apron-adorned women in nearly every advertisement that is related to housework or cooking, including those for irons, kitchen appliances, and food products. The 1950s brought out the half-aprons of highly starched cotton, feedsack,[dubious – discuss] and for special occasions sheer fabric trimmed with lace. Two-piece aprons and short smocks of bright cotton prints for every day use were also popular.
The postwar archetypal housewife was practical and creative. She made aprons out of remnants, extra kitchen curtains, dish towels, handkerchiefs, and flour sacks. When she made her aprons, she considered design as well as function. Many 1950s aprons were decorated with sewing, cleaning, cooking, and "mom" themes.
Husbands in the 1950s often sported bib aprons for barbecues on the weekends, often with written statements about Dad's grilling talents.
Aprons: 1960s – 1970s
Aprons fell out of favor as women began looking again beyond the home and family for fulfillment as the feminist movement of the latter half of the 20th century began. In response, people chose to wear no apron when they did their work, or they wore bib aprons that were less stereotypically feminine, sometimes with ironic or sarcastic statements written on them.
Aprons remained a staple of the workplace as a means of protecting garments. Aprons were also worn as a work uniform and by people who worked in the food trades—butchers, waitresses, and chefs as well as hairdressers and barbers.
Aprons: 1980s – today
Many home cooks chose not to wear an apron in the 1980s. Those that did often wore bib aprons or vintage/retro DIY aprons. However, more recently the apron has again enjoyed increasing popularity. Employees in the service industry continue to wear aprons for work, often a bib apron with company logos. Today there is no negative social stigma associated with doing one's own chores (e.g. cooking, cleaning) or pursuing messy hobbies or careers (e.g. styling, gardening, painting).