I have found eBay to be a good source for vintage patterns, if you have the temperment to browse through frame after frame of small photos. Aprons are a way of seeing how our foremothers saw themselves; how culture thought of women; what women were expected to do.
I suppose before sewing machines were a common item in households, most women made patterns from their old clothes, and kept their workday items fairly simple. Wealthier people had their clothes tailored, and I believe that young housemaids and kitchen girls were expected to make up their own work costumes. Aprons were utlitarian, the clothing that protected dresses and skin from water, soap, dust, mud and food spatters. Maids had work aprons that went over serving aprons; I still do this. I have kitchen aprons that go over the cape and apron or dress apron that covers my dress. (Even on warm days I have three layers of clothing.) By the 1930s women made their own aprons, and while still pretty utilitarian, they were becoming a little more fashionable.
Patterns were available by mail order from newspapers. As dresses got shorter, so did the aprons. Printed feed and flour sacks were used for this kind of everyday garment, or older dresses were taken apart and made into new aprons. Women wore the cocverall kind of apron right through the 1940s, with popular patterns advertising that they used a yard or less of fabric. The Depression shortage of funds for new material and the wartime shortages of any fabric may be why wraparound and coverall aprons were rarely made in those decades.
The 1950s br0ught a new prosperity and a number of “labour-saving” household devices; while my country living family still wore the coverall or bib apron, suburban women were becoming more sophisticated.
It was in this time, and into the 1970s, that aprons became an at-home wardrobe enhancement, “dressing up” a plain skirt, or worn as a way of indicating hospitality. In some communities, bridesmaids received a gift of a pretty apron for helping serve at a bridal reception. (I gave my two “bridesmaids” vintage aprons when Nicholas and I were married.)
Most of us wear aprons for the old reasons – we have kitchen, house or garden work to do. We need pockets big enough to carry tools. We wear full aprons and the two-piece cape and apron for modesty. While my young friends like an apron for baking or cooking, they aren’t likely to put one on over a dress for appearance or modesty. Nor would they wear one outside the home, or even think of putting one on just because that’s what YOU do. Yet I see young women acorss the continent and in Europe making and wearing aprons.
My friend Bethann made the point in seminary that the apron has been the distinguishing garment of women for millenia; men may have work related garments that cover clothes for safety or sanitary reasons, but women wear aprons as an identifier of feminine competence. An apron says that we are ready for serious work, or at least we might consider it. Even women in the Sun King’s court put on a lacy little overskirt, as if to say, “I could whip up a batch of madelines right now.” Marie Antoinette had a frilly dairymaid’s apron to go over the elaborate peasant costume worn down on her play farm at Versailles.
We are reclaiming the apron. It passed out of the fashion vernacular for a few decades, but it looks like it is coming back.