Many years ago, before cell phones and ATMs, DTV and thong underwear, there was my grandmother’s apron drawer, and in it lay aprons and the secrets of female technology. Aprons with apples on them, and flowers, they buttoned at the neck and tied in bows at the waist. You’ve seen them in vintage stores along with old Frigidaire ads. Aprons, the key to how women in the Fifties wore those bouffant dresses and raised children unstained. Aprons, which were part of a woman’s arsenal from the moment America was born and before. We dressed our babies in aprons and our children. My grandmother never set foot in her kitchen without one. These days the only aprons you see are barbecue aprons for men. What happened here? When did aprons become a symbol of oppression for women? It isn’t true in every country. I once bought a lovely feminine, but heavy duty apron at IKEA, a European import store, and I wear it constantly. But the only aprons I’ve seen there since are big boxy men’s aprons, lest liberated apron shoppers be offended.
The first mention of the apron in the English language occurs in 1307 in England in the Draper’s Dictionary, where aprons are described as being made of linen. By 1400, in the treatise Beryn (Childbearing), they have become part of women’s life: “With hir napron feir…she wypid sofft hir eyen.” The apron was a brilliant invention, a piece of high technology for the time. It has come to symbolize housewifery but it was simply a fabulous device that kept your clothes clean when there was no running water. Amazing. An apron is a protective covering. A woman would not go to the beach without sunscreen. Why would she be near hot grease without an apron? I love aprons and I am an apron wearer. When I go to a woman’s house and she is cooking a big dinner and not wearing an apron, she looks underdressed to me and a bit foolish, not liberated.
I wear aprons for protection and for the alchemy they conjure up about housekeeping, which is a mid-century thing. My grandmother was the greatest housekeeper in the world. She has been dead nine years, but her furniture still shines. I don’t know how she did it. She tried to teach me but I failed to grasp the secrets. I’m good. But she was great.
I haven’t mentioned the apron’s sexual aspect, but it’s there. Not for me but as a class thing, coming I guess from the Victorian era. The naughty maid in the frilly apron, a staple of Victorian pornography. The idea of having sex in aprons is silly to me and the waste of an apron.
The 21st Century is about disposability not preservation and invulnerability, so there is no need for protection. But human life requires aprons and if someday there are no more being made, I will make one myself.
"These days the only aprons you see are barbecue aprons for men. What happened here? When did aprons become a symbol of oppression for women?." ~ Emily Prager
Text © EllynAnne Geisel