I was required to take home economics to graduate from high school in 1989, on account of my double-X chromosomes. Boys got to play with saws and hammer nails and operate power tools in shop while girls learned to sew, change diapers on a baby doll and make turkey tetrazzini.
I raged against my fate. I hated every second I spent at the sewing machine and ripped out more seams than I put in. I couldn’t imagine a future in which I would ever need the apron I was obliged to make, along with a matching head kerchief, a la Disney’s Cinderella in her pre-princess days. I deemed it all stereotypical nonsense. I wasn’t going to be a housewife. I was going to be a writer and have my stories published in The New Yorker. In protest, I chose the most reductively feminine fabric I could find, a pink gingham. It was a joke to me, although it was lost on my teacher, a humorless woman who evaluated my handiwork with an unforgiving eye.
My baby boomer mother never wore an apron that I can remember. I wouldn’t call her a feminist, exactly, but she had firm ideas about women’s equality and was as liberated as she cared to be, even though she made most of our meals from scratch and ran a very orderly home. My paternal grandmother, born in 1907, nearly always wore an apron in the kitchen, a smocklike garment that slipped over her head. I kept it when she died, refusing to wash it because it still held her fragrance, clean and powdery and redolent of spice.
I also inherited a cedar trunk full of my grandmother’s household linens. Tucked among the hand-embroidered pillowcases, doilies and tea towels were about a dozen fancy aprons I’d never seen before: black tulle with sparkly rhinestones, gauzy red organdy trimmed in gold and colorful starched cotton with appliqued embellishments. I imagined Grandma as a 1950s TV-show mother with swirling skirts, dark hair curled back from her face and a hot casserole dish in her oven-mitted hands. The aprons seemed to reveal a kind of glamorous domesticity that was foreign to me. Women’s work meant oppression, not haute couture. I wanted to dislike them but I couldn’t. I thought they were beautiful.
These are exactly the kind of aprons that Jamie Phoenix, owner of Shipyard Millie’s online vintage store at www.shipyardmilliesvintage.com, has in her personal collection. Many of Phoenix’s aprons belonged to her great-grandmother Mildred, who lived in Vancouver and worked in the Kaiser shipyards (and inspired the vintage shop’s name). Most of these fancy aprons date from the post-war era, Phoenix said, when social life revolved around the home.
“They are hostess aprons, a half-apron meant to be worn over your dress when serving guests. They tend to be more fashionable than utilitarian,” Phoenix said. “Back in the ’50s, it wasn’t really appropriate for women to go to bars. It was more common for people to come to your home. You’d have dinner parties, rotating among your circle of friends. As the hostess, you’d have your party dress, but you needed an apron that matched your party dress.”
In fact, Phoenix’s first apron was given to her by her great-grandmother, a hand-stitched heirloom that Phoenix still cherishes. Phoenix said she does wear an apron at home when she cooks, but it’s more pragmatic than decorative. When I asked Phoenix what Mildred usually wore in the kitchen, she described the same kind of workaday smock that my grandmother favored.
Whether they’re plain or fancy, aprons are extremely useful for keeping your togs clean. It’s a commonsense appurtenance that’s been around for centuries, said Alisa Tetreault, owner of Most Everything Vintage, 815 Washington St. in downtown Vancouver.
“You see them in bar service, restaurant service and beauty salons. It’s just a very practical accessory to protect your clothing,” Tetreault said. “If someone’s going to wear an apron in the kitchen, they’re wearing it out of practicality. They’re not wearing it because they’re male or female. I mean, guys wear aprons when they barbecue.”
“I actually have a group that comes in once a month, all dressed up in their anime outfits,” Tetreault said. “Almost all of them are wearing aprons.”
Liza Schade, collections manager at the Clark County Historical Museum, said the museum’s collection includes 24 aprons, including a leather blacksmith’s apron and two canvas carpenters’ aprons. Most of the aprons, though, are for domestic use. Schade sent me photographs of three cotton aprons with delicate red embroidery from the 1920s or ’30s, likely owned by the same woman. One has an elaborate lace hem.
“Generally, these aprons were a dime a dozen. Women made them all the time. If you had any extra fabric, you could throw together an apron,” Schade said. (In fact, “apron” comes from the French napron, meaning a small piece of cloth.)
“An upper middle class housewife might have three or four aprons,” Schade said. “If she’s an extremely upper-class woman, she probably doesn’t own an apron at all because she doesn’t even know how to boil an egg. It would have depended on the woman, her class and what her interests were.”
Perhaps more than any other article of clothing, aprons symbolize the work of homemaking, long considered a woman’s domain. But my grandmother and my mother were accomplished in many domains, including (but not only) their homes. They mastered whatever they set their hands to, whether it was icing a cake, copy editing a magazine article or running payroll for the Vancouver School District. No matter what they wore or what they were doing, they completed every task with single-minded dedication. Apron or no apron, they’re my feminist icons.
The ironically girly pink apron that I made 30 years ago now hangs in my kitchen. It’s the backup for when my regular apron — a bold octopus print — is in the wash. After staining more items of clothing than I care to recall, I’ve come to respect the apron’s power. When I’m done cooking, I take the apron off, go upstairs and write for The Columbian. Maybe it’s not The New Yorker, but it’s the domain I’ve chosen.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to get back in the kitchen and make dinner. We’re having turkey tetrazzini.
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