From Vemeer's Blue Apron to a Kilt? What in the world?

This is the second part of a two-part series. Here is the first part, if you missed it: VERMEER'S MILKMAID & HER APRON IN BRILLIANT BLUE


More About Aprons

Aprons are defined as being worn over clothing. The word originating from from an Old French word napron meaning a small piece of cloth, however over time "a napron" evolved into "an apron." Aprons have a very practical purpose: to protect the wearer, and the wearer's clothing.

Many apron wearers, such as blacksmiths, cobblers, sculptors, butchers, etc. wore aprons to protect themselves and their vital organs. Housemaids, bakers, and others used them more to protect clothing and to announce one's station in society, as part of a uniform.

Of the three women in this photo from an episode of the "Upstairs, Downstairs" TV show, two maids are dressed with identical aprons and hats, and a third is dressed in more economical clothing, with an apron that can handle more messy tasks without looking messy. Her attire conveys a less important role in the household. And even in this photo, with a less assertive countenance, she is taking a subordinate position behind the front two maids.

Aprons can also be a fashion statements.

In the fashion world, aprons have been used for centuries. "They were particularly popular in the 1940s; when materials were scarce, a small piece of fabric could add interest to an outfit. ...It’s interesting that aprons should pop up again when the world has started to tentatively return to the office post-lockdowns, because above all aprons are associated with labor in the present tense. You wear an apron when engaged with works in progress, great or small."
by Laird Borrelli-Persson, "Just in Time for Thanksgiving, an Ode to the Fashionable Apron," Vogue, November 23, 2021

Let's start with the fashion world's current use of aprons and then go back in time.

Contemporary "Aprons"

These are some images from a Vogue article from November 23, 2021. As you will see, we're starting with a broad definition of "apron." The title of the article is "Just in Time for Thanksgiving." Wondering: would I wear either of these to my family's Thanksgiving dinner?

Historic Aprons

Often the apron has an association of being exclusively a women's garment, and especially for a peasant woman, or a woman in service to others.

In the mid-20th C, the term, "tied to her apron strings" had an emasculating connotation and meant (usually) a man who was incapable of acting independently, confidently, or I suppose, with bravery.

Visions come to mind of a woman such as Beaver Cleaver's mother, June Cleaver, in the sitcom, Leave it to Beaver, with her crisp apron and pearls.

I am not grappling with these rich, cultural stereotypes here. This essay is narrowly looking at aprons and a bit of the history surrounding aprons.

In this watercolor drawing, the woman's sleeves are rolled up, her hair is held back, she uses a long-handled spoon, and she is standing a smart distance from the fire to avoid embers, flare ups, or splashing from the hot liquid. All these safety precautions, plus she wore her apron to help protect her and her clothing. One of her hands steadies the pot, which poses a question to me. Wouldn't the handle, presumably metal, be hot?

Early household aprons were almost always white or in made from an unbleached fabric. Often the coarsest, homespun-type fabric was used. (Vermeer's blue apron was a vibrant exception to the rule.) Usually early aprons were undecorated.

The Holkeim Bible apron, above, is an exception. It is not plain.

It "is a rare example of an early 14th century apron with decorative stitching or weaving in red alongside a decorative band. The apron itself appears gathered onto the waistband...Without any written evidence, it is impossible to verify if the decorative feature is smocking or another kind of fancy stitching."

Rosalie Gilbert "Medieval Aprons." from Medieval Woman blog.

When Were the First Aprons?

In depends on how you define "apron." If we continue with a definition of a flap of some sort worn in front to protect the wearer, we could go back to ancient Egypt. This works especially if we allow that aprons could be worn not only over clothing, but against the skin.

This small figure from the collection of the Met only about 4" x 2", is wearing a shendyt-kilt. A shendyt, also known as a schenti or a loincloth, is defined as part of the attire of men in ancient Egypt. It was worn against the skin.

I propose that the origin of the shendyt was not only decorative, but serving the same purposes as an apron to protect the wearer and signify class or role in society.

This figure from The Met is a depiction of General Tjahapimu, a historic person of Egypt.

General Tjahapimu was involved in politics and was designated "in control of Egypt" while others, including members of his family, were engaged in a military campaign in Asia.

His shendyt is an example of a garment used for protection and to imply his status. And, although The Met's object description on this page online does not discuss his attire, from the thickness of the covering, it appears to be made from a hide. Even the distinctive cut of the covering suggests it was cut from a hide. (There are irregular angles and cuts when tanning a hide to accommodate the limbs, neck, tail, etc.) Please zoom in, especially on the left leg, on the photo to get a better idea of how the hide is cut to fit his body.

A thick, tanned hide is practical for protecting a body since it is flexible and fairly lightweight for daily wear, yet durable. Today, farriers, blacksmiths, and glass blowers may wear leather aprons.

The Kilt

Today's kilt is a modification from the traditional Scottish kilt. The word, kilt, comes from the same Scottish word "kilt," which means “to tuck clothes around the body."

Originally it contained yards and yards of fabric (up to 6 or 8 yards). It was primarily draped from the waist, belted, and then around the body in hand-gathered pleats. After wrapping around he body, significant yardage of fabric remained, untucked, so to speak, to cover the upper body, and to be ingeniously draped as pockets to hold munitions, weapons, or provisions.

Or possibly, as with the fabrics on aprons of today, the fabric could form a vessel for holding gathered objects, or to protect a hand pulling something out of a fire, or to soften the hard ground at night for rest.

"At the end of the 16th century, the kilt first appeared as the belted plaid (Breacan an Fhéilidh) or great kilt (Feileadh Mòr): a full-length garment whose upper half could be worn as a cloak draped over the shoulder or brought over the head as a hood."
The Clan Buchanan, "A Brief History of the Kilt."

A couple of images of men in kilts:

One observation of interest to me is that I had thought that the tartan pattern in the kilt represented the clan. This 4th Earl of Loudoun has at least two tartans in his attire, plus the additional pattern in his stockings. I find this intriguing. (Keep in mind, Scottish 17th C attire is an area in which I have no expertise.)

I am also intrigued by Samuel McPherson's attire. So many different tartans and bags and bundles. Weapons hanging here and there. It all seems so awkward.

A Few of My Favorite Aprons

Here are a few of my favorite finds:

These aprons are astonishingly intricate garments as is the balance of these 17th C ensembles.

I love this image not only for the garments, but for the attitude depicted on these women's faces and postures. They will not take any guff from unruly children or rude shopkeepers.

The next image depicts a whole different era of demure women. in the last quarter of the 19th C.

So many designs, embellishments, and strap configurations. I love how all the ladies in aprons seem to be speaking to each other. :-)

Here is a stunning garment from Russian, described as an apron. Such beautiful hand-woven fabric is used in this garment. Charming folk patterns celebrate goddess worship for fertility in this example from The Met.

Last, are two aprons recently given to me by my brother-in-law, Dennis Hickstein. He has become an apron connoisseur; a curator of aprons of the 21st C, and the inspiration for this deep dive into apron history.

Shown is one adult apron in the "butcher apron" style, created in a watermelon fabric. The second is a child's apron, created on the diagonal of the fabric, in a whimsical cupcake fabric.

Each of these aprons is a hand-made work of art. I love my new watermelon-themed apron and I will soon share the cupcake-themed one with a young baker i know. I'm wearing my apron with a new appreciation for its place in apron history.

Did you like this information? All of my blog posts start as an e-letter and my next e-letter is due out soon. Don't miss out!

    Send a message or leave a comment

    Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

    This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

    Print this page | Special disclosure about our blog posts