In practical terms, aprons are merely protective overgarments, worn to prevent food or dirt from staining the clothing underneath. Despite these functional origins, aprons have taken on the much larger role of signifying feminine domesticity. This is particularly true of aprons featuring brightly patterned fabric or decorative embellishments. In the late 19th and through the mid-20th century, plain, utilitarian aprons were worn while doing actual work in the kitchen or home, while colorful aprons were worn when receiving guests or serving food. Thus, decorative aprons came to be associated with competent and dedicated homemakers. Even today, an image of a woman or man wearing an apron is intended to convey domestic prowess.
The distinction between plain and colored aprons was particularly important in the late 19th century, when many households began to hire servants. In order to provide visual differentiation between hired servants and the lady of the house, household maids were always clothed in white aprons when interacting with visitors. In early 20th century pattern books and kitchen manuals, white full aprons are usually labeled "maid's aprons" while those made of patterned fabric are designated "fancy aprons." Though fancy aprons were not strictly necessary, it was suggested that no woman's wardrobe was complete without a few fancy aprons to spruce up her everyday dress.
Though ready made aprons were available, fancy aprons were often made out of fabric leftover from other projects. This frugality served the dual purposes of saving money and of demonstrating sewing ability. This fancy apron was possibly made from a scarf or other large panel of fabric as there is a distinct border visible at the hem. This same border print also appears in the shoulder straps and waistband. Though the apron is made of a printed cotton, the dense allover print resembles those found on woven wool paisley shawls, a popular accessory through the 1860s. Printed imitations of the paisley shawls were widely available. When the paisley shawl went out of fashion, a frugal woman perhaps used her inexpensive printed version to create the fancy apron seen here.
The full skirt of this fancy apron can be tied in back. This would provide full coverage of a woman's skirt and suggest that this apron might have been worn for very light housework. Alternatively, it might have been worn while sewing, another occasion when it was appropriate to wear a fancy apron.
This purple and black apron also appears to have been re-purposed from a printed cotton shawl or fabric panel. The delicate white floral patterning is intended to resembles lace patterns.
This whimsical printed cotton fabric is characteristic of 1930s textiles, which often featured small, allover prints. The apron wearing farm wife demonstrates the original function of aprons while still maintaining the link between woman and apron. It also hints at aspects of European traditional or folk dress, of which highly embellished aprons were often an important component.
This pattern for a fancy half-apron was a give-away promotion for the 1948 Bob Hope/Jane Russell film The Paleface. As the film is a Western which takes place in the 19th century, it would seem odd that that marketing strategy would include a contemporary, rather than historic, pattern give-away. Aprons, however, were at the height of their popularity in the late 1940s. Rosie the Riveter had left her factory job and was expected to focus her productive efforts on the home. Like all professionals, housewives needed a uniform and the decorative fancy apron became the visual signifier of the homemaker. Aprons of the late 1940s and 1950s were often tremendously creative, featuring ingenious use of pattern, texture and trim. Commercial patterns such as the Buttons and Bows apron pattern served as a starting point for these creative efforts.