Is there another kitchen object that carries as much baggage as the apron?
A whisk and a wooden spoon are, after all, tools to get the job done. But an apron?
For years, aprons were commonplace and worn with pride. But somewhere along the line the apron became shorthand imagery for all that was holding women back, an emblem of humble domesticity and repression. When an apron was required for practical reasons, it certainly wasn't flaunted. (If your mom was like mine, she'd yank that apron off before answering the front door.) And still today, when a man is too close to his mother, we say he's tied to her apron strings.
But a growing community of self-proclaimed apronistas is seizing the apron back from such dusty, anachronistic thinking. No longer a symbol of kitchen drudgery, the apron has returned with a vengeance, ushered by a renewed appreciation of all things domestic.
"We don't have to live by anyone else's definition of what it means to be a woman, or a mother or a wife, that time is over," says Cynthia Wadell of Orange, founder of Heavenly Hostess, a line dedicated to upscale aprons and kitchen linens."You get to decide what that apron means. It's your choice."
Of course, it helps that today's aprons are not just aprons. Forget those unisex, butcher-style, fuddy-duddy aprons. Today's models — even the workhorse aprons, the ones you actually use to wipe off hands and fend off splatters — are fun. They're flirty. Sassy. Ironic. Fashion forward. And sexy: Full-length versions not only cover up but also enhance the bustline and play up an hourglass figure with a cinching of the waist.
And yet they don't take themselves too seriously: The Annie's Attic online boutique at Etsy has a line of aprons embellished with skulls.
Then there are the hostess and cocktail aprons. You do not — repeat, do not — wipe your hands on these. Not with price tags that can top $100 apiece. Wadell's aprons, for example, are wearable works of art, ethereal confections made of tulle, organza and luxurious satin, an accessory that polishes off an outfit and sends the message: "I am your hostess. And it's going to be a great party."
In other words, it wasn't that long ago that an apron would be the last thing you'd buy a mom on Mother's Day. Now it might be just the right thing.
Apronistas say the evolution of the garment mimics the broadest strokes of the women's movement. Seen as the homemaker's uniform in a "Leave It to Beaver" kind of way, aprons were ripped off and cast aside as women moved from home and kitchen to the workplace, says Janice Longone, curator of American culinary history at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
When an apron was, by necessity, called for, it was as likely to be one of those utilitarian fabric sheets, easily worn by man or woman — mirroring the desire for equality between the sexes.
But that is lost on later generations who have rediscovered the domestic arts, who unwind after a long hard day with Food Network and Martha Stewart Living magazine. They see no shame in spending the afternoon perfecting their recipes for shortbread or short ribs — and, in fact, they brag about it on their blogs. It was just a matter of time before they decided they wanted to look good doing it too.
"We've seen enough time go by, we're seeing an entire generation that doesn't have the baggage associated with the apron. They don't see it as stifling or a sign of repression or enforced domestication," says author Amy Karol, who recalls noticing the uptick in traffic whenever the topic of aprons came up on her cooking and crafting blog, Angry Chicken.
That led her to create a spinoff blog, Tie One On, a popular forum for readers who sew their own aprons and swap photos of the finished product. When Karol announces a contest for, say, the finest black-and-white aprons around, she can expect a mailbox jammed with dozens upon dozens of JPEGs. "People love it. They can't get enough of aprons," she adds.
Author and apron archaeologist EllynAnne Geisel, whose website, www.apronmemories.com, is dedicated to celebrating aprons, kitchen linens and the women who used them, sees the renewed interest in aprons as something that goes deeper, something spiritual. Something that allows us to make peace with the past.
"It's a connector, it's one item that ties us to women everywhere, across time," says Geisel, who makes, sells and collects aprons and brings many of them along with her when she travels the country for speaking engagements.
And wherever she goes, the women line up and the memories pour out. "It just makes people melt. They talk about aprons and suddenly they're talking about their mothers and their childhood."
"Aprons don't hold us back — they take us back," she added. "They honor women of an earlier generation. And those women were doing the best they could."
Beth Livesay, the managing editor of Apronology, a Laguna Hills magazine launched last year with pages upon pages of aprons ranging from the vintage to the outlandish — ever see a cashmere apron before? — says that slowly, surely, the apron is regaining its status as the country stumbles out of the recession with a newfound appreciation for simpler times.
"There's this sense of nostalgia tied to the apron, the comforts of home, a motherly warmth, being wrapped up in your mother's apron, and of course the comfort that food offers," says Livesay. And, as anyone who has ever taken up sewing knows, the apron is a perfect beginner's project, with its relatively simple design and straight lines. "For many people, that's the only thing they'll ever sew."
Joseph Hansen, co-owner of Flirty Aprons, says he was dubious before opening shop online in March 2008. He thought aprons wouldn't sell to the masses beyond mall kiosks or boutiques, but while researching the competition he found that women were clamoring for aprons that were flattering, and fun, and reminded them of the joy of cooking.
"People were looking for gourmet products they could use to cook or feel dressed up in their own home rather than spending $80 at dinner. To cook in the home is no longer taboo … we are trending back to entertaining in the home right now."
Although the apron may have once symbolized a woman's lack of choices in life, it is now an empowering icon for the abundance of choices in a woman's life, says Wadell as she stands in the Heavenly Hostess showroom and boutique off the traffic circle in Old Towne Orange.