A dozen aprons hang on four hooks in my kitchen. A 1950s red-and-green trimmed hostess apron that belonged to my mother-in-law. Another with the handprints of small children, a class "thank you" for being room mother. A fall-themed number handsewn by a reader. And there are more.
The most-used aprons are in the front, marked by splattering oil, sputtering tomato sauce and even slippery mango, a vicious staining agent if there ever was one.
My very favorite "working apron," as I call this version of the kitchen utility shield, was purchased in a small linen store in the south of France about 8 years ago. It's made of a thick cotton, almost like you'd see in an upholstery store. The apron is wide at the bottom to cover my considerable flanks and providing a place to wipe my hands. The waist straps are long enough to wrap around and tie in front. There's a pocket that I never use.
I love this apron so much that I bought another like it in Paris a year ago, only made of more fancy linen. I am afraid to use the new one because I don't want the fabric to be ruined by energetic chopping and stirring. (Do I need an apron for my apron?) Concerned about the day when Apron No. 1 falls apart, I called in the best seamstress I know to replicate it. The apron went with me to California where I left it with my sister. It, and the three she made using the original as her guide, came back to Florida on a recent visit.
Obsessed about aprons? Possibly. But I am not the only one.
A domestic love affair
The resurgence of apron buying and wearing can be explained in many ways, but the truth is that aprons are hot as both collectibles and utilitarian kitchen essentials. At vintage shops, trendy boutiques, kitchen stores and even barbecue supply businesses, you'll find healthy supplies of aprons. The choices multiply mightily online at websites like Flirtyaprons.com (cute), Zazzle.com (personalized) and Jessiesteele.com (vintage designer).
The fifth edition of Apronology, an annual anthology of everything apron, comes out in February, with photos, stories and patterns for homemade projects. A traveling exhibit, "Apron Chronicles: A Patchwork of American Recollections," is in its eighth year and is now at the Mercer Museum in Doylestown, Pa., north of Philadelphia. Its curator and organizer, EllynAnne Geisel, is also the author of several popular books on aprons and shares stories about favorite aprons at Apronmemories.com.
Some say the apron's renewed popularity stems from a growing interest in domesticity by a generation of young women who grew up in homes where Mom was working rather than waiting at the door with milk and cookies after school. This is the generation that has brought back canning and needle crafts. Others believe it's a love affair with nostalgia, fueled by the likes of chic Betty Draper in the retro-cool TV show Mad Men and all those '50s and '60s programs we love to watch (and rewatch) on TV Land.
And how novel that there's actually a school of thought that we're cooking more and we need aprons to protect our clothes, the original purpose.
Claire Steele, who, with her mother Jessica, runs Jessiesteele.com, which specializes in feminine vintage aprons (think gingham, polka dots and lots of ruffles) in San Rafael, Calif., says the modern love affair with aprons blends both fashion and utility. The apron, she says, brings fashion into the kitchen and helps women "feel fantastic even while doing something that can be perceived as a chore."
"It goes back to the old saying, 'when you look good, you feel good,' " she says by email.
Steele says the site's sales are up, both in the United States and internationally. One of the biggest sellers is an apron adorned with cupcakes topped with a cherry. That might have something to do with the cupcake craze that's been strong for several of years. Two trends in one, it seems.
What Aunt Bee, June Cleaver and Ozzie Harriet wore so proudly now "represents such fundamental needs as joy, nourishment and love," Steele says.
The modern uses
Desiree Sheridan, owner of Buffalo Gal Vintage Clothing, Accessories and Gifts in St. Petersburg (911 Central Ave.; 727-290-8468), sells vintage and reproduction aprons from the turn of the last century up until the 1980s. She says she has seen more interest in aprons, especially around holidays.
What her customers consider vintage has to do with their age. Women in their 70s look to the 1920s, when the aprons were white with long skirts and often a bib, she says. The hostess aprons of the 1950s appeal to women in their 50s, who remember Mom and Grandma entertaining in frills. Even the mustard-yellow, avocado-green aprons of the 1970s have their fans; mostly women in their 20s and 30s.
Sure, you can wear an apron to cook in, but Sheridan dresses some of her young clients in aprons to go out on the town. A black slip under a full-bib apron with clogs? A turtle neck with an a-line skirt and a checked hostess apron with a heart pocket? Forget slaving over a hot stove, these duds are for dancing.
And how about the apron as a political statement?
Last Sunday women in England were encouraged to wear aprons to church to protest a vote that denied women the right to become bishops in the Anglican church.
"The idea is that women wear an apron or pinafore on top of their clothes as a mockery of the idea that they are fit only for tea making," said one of the organizers.
The poetry of aprons
EllynAnne Geisel may be the nation's foremost authority on aprons — and the strings that bind us to the women who nourished us.
She speaks poetically and lovingly of the apron, a simple article of clothing that has turned into a career of speaking engagements and press interviews for the Pueblo, Colo., woman. Geisel originated the day-before-Thanksgiving Tie One On Day to honor the apron.
A woman once told her that when she tied on her mother's apron, she felt like she was getting a hug from her.
"That's the thing, the joy of these vintage aprons. They have the stories and spirit of the person woven into the fabric," she says.
They are our caregiving cloak.
"When you enter the home, set down your purse, briefcase, shopping bags; take off your coat and exchange it for the domestic armor, you switch gears in your head," she says. "It's a signal, a trigger. Some people light a candle, burn incense or pour a glass of wine but tying on that apron says I have another job now. The whole family needs to reunite and the apron signals that."
They are such a source of comfort to her that when she's stressed, she irons aprons — and, her collection of "hundreds and hundreds" provides plenty of relief.
If aprons are getting so popular, how come we never see them on celebrity cooks? Rachael Ray has her jersey tops; Giada De Laurentiis her cleavage-baring shirts; and Ina Garten is always in a well-pressed linen button-down, normally blue or black.
"They don't wear them because they don't have to care about their clothes," Geisel says. "Every time I get lazy and I don't know wear one, I look down and there's the spot. The oil or the tomato grease. That's not their concern."
Most likely because there's a rack of identical shirts off camera to be slipped on if there are any on-set mishaps.
My mother didn't wear an apron, though I can remember a sweet hostess apron tucked in the drawer where the dish towels lived. My German grandmother had one of those Aunt Bee aprons that she put on over her head. Honestly, it didn't look that different from the dress underneath it.
I don't come from a line of fashion conscious cooks so the hostess apron doesn't elicit a lot of warm and fuzzy memories for me. I call them "cocktail aprons" and think they are pretty, but they don't do what I want an apron to do: protect my clothes. Nor am I a wearer of "message aprons" that beg you to "Kiss the Cook" or proclaim that "It's 5 o'clock somewhere."
I hadn't thought it before, but Geisel is right about the switch that's flicked when I tie on an apron. I pull the ties tight on my working aprons and my family knows that I am busy making something good to eat. I have transitioned from work to home and the apron signifies that (though sometimes as a food writer, my kitchen is a workplace!). I've never asked them, but I suspect that my husband and son know the dirtier the apron, the more elaborate and delicious the meal.
Come to my house almost any night of the week and I'll be wearing an apron. I like the comfort of it, the message woven into the fabric, as Geisel would say.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8586.