Not only did they protect the clothing underneath (or hide it), they served as a pot holder for removing pans from the stove or oven, or a towel for drying the hands. They were also used to carry in vegetables and fruit from the garden, eggs from the chicken house and, perhaps, kindling wood. Woody’s gran always wore her apron – the wraparound kind – and she used to hide under it as she was, “awfully shy”.
Aprons generally have deep pockets in which to keep all sorts of items, from cooking utensils and clothes pegs, to treats for the children and, as Cherry Tradewell put it, are the indoor equivalent of a lady’s handbag.
Many of us have photos of our ancestors wearing their aprons and as Trish@Somerset, Sue in Kent and Yanto said, our grandmothers never seemed to be without them.
Some of us who are old enough (me included) also made our own aprons in needlework class at school – mine was blue gingham – and then used them in cooking class. The school pinnies were of various designs from plain to very elaborate.
In Macbev’s primary school days, calico aprons printed with patterns were purchased to be embroidered. Hers featured a lady in a crinoline and bonnet watering an old English cottage garden. Suitable fabric for the skirt and bonnet had to be appliquéd, and the flowers embroidered, all by hand. The hemming of the edges of the apron and the top sewing of the straps were also done by hand. Being very poor at hand sewing, the appliqué took forever, with much unpicking; her sister had to be called in to help finish the flowers in order to meet the deadline. It was far too elaborate to be anything but a ‘special occasions’ apron and Macbev doesn’t remember ever using it.
Olde Crone Holden remembered that her elderly Victorian-born aunties always wore spotless white, voluminous aprons. They were always laughing about something and threw the apron skirts up to cover their faces while they shook with laughter. The aprons got boiled up with soda and pink soap regularly – “brave bold germ that survived that!”. In the depression of the late 1920s and 1930s, one granny always wore an apron, simply because it was cheaper than a dress and no-one could see how ragged and awful the clothes were underneath it.
Jennie’s husband’s grandma, who is fabulous at cooking and baking, still wears hers, as do a few of us. As grandmothers, Vanessa Tallon and Harry’s Mum carry on the tradition and have their grandchildren help, wearing either their own or their grandmothers’ aprons. Harry’s Mum told us that her grandchildren love wearing her aprons all tucked up, when they are ‘helping’ her cook and Vanessa bought her granddaughter a baking set which included her very own apron.
Several of our own mums wore a tea apron. Olde Crone Holden’s mum kept a couple of dog ends in her pocket, from which she learnt to smoke behind the coal shed.
At one time Felicity had at least five aprons hanging on the kitchen door, one for herself and one for each of her children with a few extras for visiting friends.
She remembered how her grandfathers and father used to talk with pride of the role their wives had in the household, keeping things spick and span and running like clockwork. It was appreciated in a way that seems to have gone by the wayside these days. Her mother’s mother was a seamstress before she married and the talk of her street, because she had aprons with head coverings that matched to keep the dust out of her hair.
When Peppie’s mother-in-law died, her son placed one of her aprons on her coffin with some clothes pegs and a hankie in the pocket.
In Macbev’s family aprons were mostly utilitarian. Her mother wore them when she hung out the washing, sat out in the sun to do mending and her sisters wore them when they polished brass or cleaned shoes. She doesn’t remember her grandmother ever wearing one – she was always dressed to kill in her corsets, twin sets, smart skirts and stockings, but then, she lived with Mcbev’s aunty, who did all the cooking. Aunty ‘Tiddles’ was a great cook, held open house and was always in a frilly pinny.
Sunny Kate’s mother, a “great devotee of aprons”, used to embroider her own and, as a child, Kate loved to dress up and wear the pretty ones. She wore her own pinnies under sufferance, including one she had to make at school by hand. Yummy-mummy-of-2’s mum always used to make her wear one when she was little if she wanted to help her ‘bake’ something or do the washing up, etc. The only time her kids wear one is for painting.
The thread brought back some lovely memories for Borobabs who used to go to her nan’s every day. As her mam worked part-time she was there during the holiday period, and if she was ill and off school, she used to lay on nan’s sofa watching the fire flicker away in between sleeping. She remembered her nana baking bread and holding Bab’s eldest on her knee with him laid in her apron rocking.
Little Nell pointed out that our mums and grandmothers did lots of messy things and added that nowadays, you don’t need an apron if you are just transferring a box from the freezer to the microwave or putting a dish in a dishwasher. They did not have the conveniences we have today and daily chores were more time consuming and messier; cleaning out the fire every day, cooking virtually everything from scratch, washing, scrubbing and no vacuum cleaners.
In previous centuries, the quality and colour of aprons indicated a woman’s social status. The poor wore aprons made of a coarser, more serviceable material, while those who were better off wore something made from a finer material (perhaps linen, calico or silk), sometimes with embroidery.
In the 17th century, plain aprons, with or without bibs, were worn by housewives. Aprons made of finer fabric without bibs were also worn by wealthier ladies as elegant accessories. These were usually of a transparent material and trimmed with lace, cutwork or embroidery. In 1657, ‘Sir Miles Stapleton’s Household Books’ state “two fine large new fashioned Holland aprons 38/-” and in 1659, Pepys mentions the Queen in his diary “being in her white pinner and apron”.
Aprons were also a fashion statement for the more elegant in Victorian times, and in 1851 the Ladies’ Companion said, “Aprons are often of richer materials than the dresses with which they are worn.”
In early Victorian times, apparently they were usually made of satin, often of a darker colour, and were embroidered in brightly coloured silks. Forty years later, they were made of almost any material and were of various styles, as can be seen by the photo above taken in the 1880s.
The pinafore or ‘pinny’ was named as such because it was originally pinned onto the blouse or dress rather than being secured with straps around the neck. This style was particularly popular at the beginning of the 20th century.
During the depression in the United States many women used feed sacks to fashion aprons as they couldn’t afford anything else to protect their meagre wardrobe. The Second World War saw women working in the factories and wearing aprons, both at work and at home. This is also the time when the headscarf worn as a turban and knotted at the front became popular (with or without the metal curlers underneath).
The changing role of women in the family, easier-to-wash fabrics, a greater variety of effective detergents, and the advent of the automatic washing machine in the 1960s, meant less need for aprons in the home. This has almost led to the demise of the humble apron in the present-day home, but mention of it can still bring back memories of our childhood for many of us.
© jenoco 2009
Handbook of English Costume in the 17th century – G. Willett Cunnington and Phillis Cunnington
Victorian Costume and Costume Accessories – Anne Buck