Aprons were originally designed to cover and protect the garment worn underneath. Years ago, large wardrobes were a luxury not shared by many women and washing of that clothing was not done on a frequent basis. Garments were sometimes worn four or five times and aprons served a practical purpose, to cover the dress underneath and to protect it from soiling while cooking and cleaning.
Most of our female ancestors owned many aprons, which were made from cotton and covered the bodice and skirt of their dress. These full aprons were worn by homemakers, as well as nurses and teachers. During this time in history, men also wore aprons as an essential article of clothing in the blacksmith, carpentry and baker trades.
During the 1950s, society celebrated the role of homemaker and aprons were worn as a mantle of pride. The famous symbol of domesticity was made into a fashion statement by popular television shows such as "Leave it to Beaver" and "Ozzie and Harriet." The "June Cleaver era" half-aprons were embellished with rickrack, ruffles, buttons, and appliques. Women often changed from their cooking aprons into serving aprons, which matched tablecloths or place mats.
While wearing aprons may not be very popular anymore, they still serve the same purpose: to protect the clothing underneath. There is nothing more frustrating to a cook than to purchase a new blouse or shirt and get grease splatters or sauce drippings on it the first time it is worn. Digging an heirloom apron out of a trunk or even selecting a new one at a kitchen supply store can save money on stain removers and dry cleaning, as well as preserving expensive clothing.
I cherish the many aprons I have tucked away in drawers and closets. The symbol of homemaking most vividly emblazoned in my memory is bright yellow with four large black and white polka dot pockets lining the front. Mother made it from scraps early in her domestic career to hold lots of wooden clothespins. She called it her "hanging out clothes apron" and never dared cook a meal with it on.
"It's too ragged," she said with a discerning look. I would have gladly worn it all day long because it smelled like sunshine and felt like home. When I wrapped those strings around my waist, I was a Mommy, which was every little girl's dream in that long ago era. I loved to fill the empty pockets with crayons, rubber balls and little metal jacks while our sheets and socks blew in the afternoon breeze.
I have a long, black and white gingham striped that belonged to my Grandmother Williams and a pretty red gingham one passed down to me, which was made by my grandmother Morrow in the early 1900s from a scrap of leftover curtain material.
When my aunt Mamie died a few years back, I added one of her green flowered aprons to my nostalgic collection. It was my daughter's favorite when she was a toddler and she insisted on wearing it whenever she played with her assortment of dolls, even though the big wide strings wrapped around her tiny body three times. "I have to wear an apron to be the Mommy," she proclaimed. I have taught her well.
Some people say that aprons are dead and women today don't want to wear that uniform anymore. The pretty, frilly ones are carefully wrapped in memories and lay tucked away in the bottom of our hearts. They are a reminder of our mothers and grandmothers and the enticing smells of a home cooked meal. These historical artifacts remind us what is important and encourage us to celebrate women's history.
Last Sunday after church, I went into the kitchen to prepare dinner for my family. I didn't want to risk my white blouse getting dirty, so I reached for the serviceable twill apron kept hanging on a hook by the stove. It has no pockets or embellishments adorning the front, only the simple phrase, "Kiss the Cook." Even though it serves its purpose, it always feels too stiff hanging around my neck.I hung the utilitarian apron back on its display hook and retrieved a faded one from a nail in my utility room. Embedded deep in the folds are dried tears, tiny handprints and a light dusting of White Lily flour. While I cooked, my son tucked a wildflower into one of my polka dot pockets, and even without instructions, he gave me a kiss on the cheek. The comforting apron strings that tie me to my ancestors may not be high fashion anymore, but then again, neither am I.
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