According to the New World Dictionary, an apron is a garment worn over the front part of the body to cover or protect clothes. There are several types and varieties of aprons, but the focus here is on the neat, frilly little square of cloth that’s tied at the waist (think of June Cleaver, Edith Bunker or Lucy Ricardo, among many other classic TV characters) and conveyed the symbol of domestic life-like cookies and a pot roast always baking in the oven.
Even in the Bible, Adam and Eve wore a sort of apron; according to Genesis 3:11: “Adam sewed fig leaves together and made them aprons.”
By the Middle Ages, aprons were practically required regular wear (eating was a messy process then and clothes were hard to wash).
During the Industrial Revolution, blacksmiths, carpenters, fishermen, masons and other tradesmen wore aprons to carry tools and for protection. Cooks, maids, nannies, nurses and farm wives wore aprons as well to keep their clothes clean while they worked.
Slaves used colorful patchwork ones that often told a story (these are considered highly collectible).
By the 1900s, aprons were less utilitarian and becoming more decorative.
During World War II, women wore aprons for factory work. Upon the war’s end, aprons became the symbol of the ultimate, professional homemaker.
The ’40s, ’50s (and early ’60s) were the apron’s heyday.
Aprons came in every form and style you could imagine: There were Harvey Girl aprons, reversible ones (you turn the “used” or soiled side around to reveal a clean, fancier version for entertaining), French maid versions, faux fur ones that look like mink, crocheted, convertible ones that double as a bonnet, an apron for a man (!), one made out of paper napkins, and others made from dish towels, feed sacks, and chiffon. Some were decorated with lace and embroidery, some handmade, others by machine.
Today the aprons that Mom and Grandma wore are considered retro-chic, with some appearing in the pages of fashion magazines and even on fashion runways. Many collectible aprons fetch good prices on eBay and specialized websites that cater to this clothing accessory.
Homemade aprons in particular (from back in the day) are now also considered a timeless and unique piece of history. Before buying one to start a collection (or simply to use), check with your mom and other female relatives first; they may have just the thing for you!