Womans Place in Home

The Inadvertent Symbolism of Aprons

1962-sept-29-joan-nelson-setting-the-table-pittsburgh-pa

An apron-wearing Joan, almost 12, learning the domestic ropes!

In our last blog post we talked about the mysterious “holes” problem—you remember, right? We ruminated about those tiny holes that mysteriously appear on the bottom front of blouses and tee shirts. Maybe it is just one hole, or two holes, maybe a mysterious pattern of multiple small holes—like the crop circles of the apparel world. Where do they come from? Who made them? Well, as we decided in our last post, we are the culprits! We make these tiny holes most of the time by trapping the fabric of our clothes between the edges of counters and the buttons of our jeans. So, the pressing question is—how to avoid them?

Searching the internet yielded some solutions, including a few advocated by domestic maven Jessica Hewitt. You can avoid the holes by adopting one or more of the following simple strategies: wear high heels when you work, wear pants with no buttons, tuck your shirt into your jeans, or wear an apron.

Let’s take each of these in turn. High heels? Let’s just say that this is not an option in our household. In a text exchange about the holes with our middle daughter Kristyn (who also suffers from this mysterious malady), Joan explained that wearing high heels was a solution we had discovered during our inquiries into the topic.

Greg, however, interjected, “I can see you and Mom doing housework in heels…not!!!”

“Yeah ain’t going to happen LOL” was our daughter’s reply.

Pants with no buttons? We just don’t see Joan in pants with an elastic waistband if they aren’t pajamas. Also, Joan is passionate about jeans (in the same way Imelda Marcos was passionate about shoes). Hello, my name is Joan, and I have a denim problem. Her collection of jeans is all one specific brand (Levi’s, yeah you guessed it) and only certain numbers—numbers that have some arcane meaning to her. The collection is curated carefully, let’s put it that way, and has mostly been assembled from “Goodwill Hunting.” Joan looks for the correct size and specific Levi Strauss number (505, 512, 515 or 550, the number she claims as her work jeans).

So, if it is a choice between the jeans and the holes in shirts…well shirts are cheaper, especially those purchased through careful coupon use and Goodwill purchasing.

As to tucking a shirt in? Well, possibly, but Joan has yet to do that and frankly, it’s not her style.

So that leaves aprons—a very sensible solution indeed. Those of us who came of age in the sixties remember a time when mothers and grandmothers routinely did their housework in dresses protected by aprons and sometimes in heels as well. (Those holes were certainly going to be held at bay.) As forty some years have since passed, the practice of wearing aprons has declined—but not entirely disappeared—the apron is not extinct and still roams the American cultural landscape. Food service workers have continued to wear them, and aprons are certainly sported by grillers at outdoor barbecues. Aprons even seem to be making a comeback in American homes, as evidenced by the “retro’ and “vintage” aprons popular on Etsy and Ebay. A variety of aprons are even available now at stores like Kohl’s and Walmart.

For we baby boomers, however, aprons evoke a plethora of mixed emotions. We get a warm fuzzy feeling when we think of the dear women—mothers, grandmothers, aunts—in our lives serving up comfort foods like meatloaf, pot roast, or one of Joan’s childhood favorite dishes “tuna spaghetti.” In our mind’s eye they are wearing aprons—bib aprons, pinafore aprons, and, of course, waist aprons. They are plain and frilly, patterned and plain, and almost always a bright, colorful testimony to the palettes of those decades.

1967-christmas-mom-aunt-helen-wearing-aprons

Christmas 1967: Mom Nelson and Aunts Helen and Evy

Television, newspaper, and magazine advertisements featuring women in aprons sold everything from foods, cleaning products, and detergent to kitchen appliances. We remember fondly our most well-known television “Moms”—June Cleaver in “Leave It To Beaver,” Margaret Anderson on “Father Knows Best,” and Donna Stone in the “Donna Reed Show.” They were the cultural exemplars of apron-wearing domesticity from our long-gone childhood, emulated to greater or lesser degrees of success by our own mothers

As a young girl Joan’s first sewing machine project was to make her own apron. It was a waist style made with pretty blue-flowered material. It had a useful pocket (something many dress pants don’t have!) and a fanciful bric-a-brac trim. She had forgotten about this apron for decades, but in 2005 when we had to sell the home her parents had lived in for almost fifty years, she found the apron nestled comfortably in a box along with her mother’s aprons.

For us, and maybe for you too, that apron is a symbol of a domestic world long gone. It harks back to a time when using a sewing machine was a skill taught only to girls in the family, and an apron was the perfect first sewing project. Naturally, a girl would need to wear it in her own kitchen some day.

mother-margaret-anderson-serving-her-family-in-father-knows-best

Mother serves…and Father knows best.

For those of us who emerged changed from the sixties, altered in mind and attitude in so many ways, a woman in an apron wasn’t just an avatar of our mothers but also a template for what we were expected to become. This once unobjectionable protector of clothing became a symbol of inequality, a marker of diminished choices and the constraints of domestic identity. A woman’s place was not in the workforce or the boardroom, or even, apropos to this year’s election, in the Oval Office. Her place was in the home: cooking, cleaning, and caring for children, with a husband as the sole and undisputed breadwinner for the family.

When Joan left home and left the sixties, she firmly put her apron-wearing days behind her—in a box, with her mother’s aprons. While Greg was in graduate school, Joan worked full-time and came home to a dinner prepared by Greg. When one of Greg’s many apron-wearing aunts found out, she chided Joan gently, “You let him do that?” It was almost unthinkable to one of our parents’ generation for a wife to “let” the husband do the cooking.

Even though economic and family circumstances changed later, and Joan took over cooking responsibilities and major household chores after almost two decades in the workforce—the decision to do so was her choice—made in order to stay home with the children and create a home life that she hopes they now fondly remember. It was not a decision made easily and without misgivings, but one she in no way now regrets. We are certainly aware that this choice is not always available to either partner due to economic or other circumstances.

So, let’s go back to the question at hand. Would Joan wear an apron to prevent those holes? No—probably not, for reasons both fashion-related and intimately entangled in the identity crises of many women of our generation.

Joan, ever practical, simply works in shirts that have already sprouted holes. But maybe, just maybe, as an ironic half-wink to who we were and who we are now, if she is ever in the kitchen with good clothes on, she might, just might, pull out that old bric-a-brac apron—the one that doesn’t have holes in it.

Advertisements