Historical Aprons and Their Origin
When I was sewing aprons recently, I wondered when they were made, who decided they needed them, and what did the first ones even look like? Historical aprons fascinated me. From their humble origins to the moden apron today, they still remain a servicable piece of clothing and are in use today. Obviously, at some point people saw a need and created something to protect their work clothing. Right? But the materials we have today and what they had to work with centuries ago are clearly two different things. Without a doubt, material was hard to come by and people, say butchers for instance, weren’t as lucky at butchers today to buy and wear plastic, or any type of aprons. And, too, cloth was woven at great expense, involved a considerable amount of time, and I’m suspecting were even woven on small frames, depending on the household, their income and their specific needs.
There doesn’t seem to be a lot of information and history out there about the lowly apron but what we do know of history, and what is seen in paintings, allows us to speculate on how the indispensable apron came into existence. And like any ‘invention’ or ‘idea’, it took shape over time as needs changed and the design changed to fit a new purpose. Maybe little was written about such a lowly garment because it was just not something considered too important, yet the garment itself has carried quite an impact over the years.
I am a child of the 50s and can distinctly remember my mother wearing an apron in the kitchen to protect her clothing from spills and spatters. She often made adorable aprons for church fund raising bazaars as well. Today? Who bakes anymore (I do!!!) with the advent of self cleaning ovens and microwaves? Still, it’s a curiosity as to how they came to be. When I think of each fiber they used for weaving coming from a sheep that had to be sheared, the wool washed, cleaned, combed and then spun before even weaving, it takes no great mental leap to see that the fibers were precious indeed and that the more wealthy would either have someone in their employ to do the dirty work and they would have the better materials to work with.
The poor, in comparison, would have worked with items not quite as high end, but the result would have been just as serviceable. Plant fibers, such as flax, took time to gather, beat, separate and work into threads for weaving thereby dramatically increasing the cost and value of the final product. I am guessing that possibly aprons were, of necessity in cost and time production, probably pretty small to start. Just enough to cover the basic part of clothing from splatters, spills and stains.
Not knowing how far back they go, I can only guess how they were made. Sewing machines and needles are things I grew up with and am familiar with, but if there were no needles millennium ago, possible bone needles were used. Or something similar. It gives one pause for thought that an apron made then would be far more work than it would be now, and would certainly be treated with great care to increase it’s longevity.
Seeing a lot of photos of paintings, it appears that around the 1500’s is when the little lap apron evolved into something fashion changed into a more elaborate style. Pinafores began showing up bit later where an apron was designed to be an apron with a pinafore on top. These were ‘pinned’ to the bodice. (Not sure how they ‘pinned’ them as pins and needles were expensive, but the few history books I’ve found say that’s what they did.)
When I make aprons for period costumes, most people want ties on the waist of the apron and they want ties on the bodice, but if you are staying with the re-enactment part of being period correct, they didn’t have ties. However, in photos of some period paintings, you’ll notice that at times aprons became elaborate and detailed part of clothing that were finely decorated. This was more of a status symbol rather than a serviceable piece of clothing.
In the fifties, when I was born, I grew up seeing these cute, serviceable AND decorative items that my mom wore in the kitchen. How the apron has changed! And now, they are coming back into fashion….ahhhh…..the more things change, the more they stay the same. Welcome back lowly, yet beloved apron!