I like kitchen couture and I truly appreciate a fine uniform. Form definitely follows function in the design of a good apron, however beyond the bounds of practicality lays a world of beauty and artistic expression.
There has been of late, a renaissance of the apron under the auspices of retro-chic fashion. True satisfaction, for me, however lies not in the purchase, but in the making of an apron. The door to apron couture is barely ajar, but the apron fascinates me.
People all over the world continue to don protective aprons of various materials. Rubber aprons for those working with dangerous chemicals, leather for carpenters or blacksmiths, lead aprons to avoid excessive radiation or others made from waterproof materials to keep dry. Then there are those other types of aprons, which are located at adult XXX shops. For now let’s keep our minds above the kitchen sink.
There is no substantiated proof that wearing an apron enables you to do any task better. I would however argue, that dressing the part often helps to focus the mind upon the intent of the activity. Perhaps an apron may have saved Jamie Oliver from burning his meat and two potatoes, while preparing a romantic celebration feast for his wife, Jules. I desperately need a shield against the splashing of great passata and I have saved several blouses in the process.
We can thank art history for recording the inception and adoption of the apron. We can thank the French for the word, which originated from Old French spelling ‘naperon’. Frankly, I haven’t stopped thanking the French for ‘amuse bouche’, a complimentary bite-size appetizer, which means ‘ fun for your mouth’.
The list of French influence has become accessible through reality television cooking competitions like My Kitchen Rules and Masterchef. Thank you from the bottom of my reserved Anglophile heart, for cream anglaise, the aperitif, au naturel, béarnaise, hors d’oeuvre, julienne, nicoise, remoulade, soufflé, and the fabulous ramekin. Cheers to you, Julie Child!
Back to the matter at hand, the humble apron. The apron first appeared in text, in the Smithfield Decretals (1300- 1340) and in visual reproduction in the Holkham Bible Picture Book (1327-1335). Aprons were little more than squares or rectangles of linen cloth tied around worker’s waists. Fabric was a precious commodity as it was hand woven on looms and each piece was used uncut. A similar apron style has been reborn in black and worn by wait staff in many cafes today.
This simple style is well illustrated in Bernardino Licinio’s ‘Portrait of the Artist’s Sister-In-Law’ (1525-1530), where modesty and practicality are melded together in several metres of cloth. In medieval and renaissance art, both genders of the working classes are depicted as wearing linen cloth to protect their clothing.
In this 15th Century German painting (below), oddly titled, ‘The Birth of Mary’ (1460-1465), aprons appeared with ‘strings’.
Anglican bishops and archdeacons historically wore an apron, black and purple respectively. It was a short cassock reaching just above the knee, worn with black breeches and knee length gaiters. It was originally designed to enable bishops and archdeacons to ride their horses across the diocese or archdeaconry. Is this evidence of the Anglican clergy attending to their flock in a far more practical manner than their ‘heathen’ Catholic cousins?
The simple apron were standard fare until the late 1500’s, when elaborately decorated aprons became the style of women. These were not ‘work clobber’ but status aprons decorated with expensive lace and embroidery. These were often handed down to favoured members of a family. Pleatwork embroidery was the fashion on necklines and cuffs prior to the 17th century and made its way onto the not so humble now, apron.
Europeans immigrating to the New World, brought the functional apron, with Pilgram wearing predictably plain, long white ones and the Quakers, God Bless them, wearing aprons made of coloured silk.
The 1920’s brought the fashionable ‘housecoat’ or full length house apron with criss-cross straps.
In the 1950’s, busty blondes with small waists, in impossible red stilettos waited diligently wearing frilly aprons for their returning hero’s. Or so Lucy and Marion would have us believe. There were some less than ‘happy days’ in the boredom of the kitchen.
As nutrition is a key component to health and well being, especially after cancer treatments of chemotherapy and radiation, wearing an apron brings a note of determination to the plate.
It is a work in progress with a series of retro inspired aprons to come.