They never even make it to the closet with the wool slacks and Sunday shoes, but are folded instead with the dish cloths and hot pads.
Years of use wear them into cheesecloth, and some stains stubbornly remain — the marinara explosion and the olive oil geyser, shadows of afternoons past in the kitchen.
They rarely make it to the table to see the meals eaten, but stay wadded on the counter where they were tossed.
If clothing could talk. If it could hold the memories and the touch of the hands that made it, if it could bring back days long since, and the cinnamon-scented mornings, the after-school comfort, the popcorn evenings. If it could do all that, well, it should be in a museum, preserved under glass, protected as a tangible expression of days passing.
But no, the garments with the most memories were made to be used, like so much of what is cherished as folk art: the butter churns and corn husk dolls, the rocking chairs and button hooks. The aprons, tied at the waist, dusted with flour, spattered and limp from wear.
There’s a sneaking incongruity in seeing aprons hung on a wall — the necessity of preserving objects in the greater ephemera of history, yes, and the fascinating progression from tool to art, but also a sense that it should be worn. That it was made to be worn. That whatever artistic impulses inspired its creator to guide it beyond basic clothing shield, it is, at heart, that: something to keep clothes from getting dirty.
This holiday season, several threads converge. Stores front-and-center the holiday aprons, the Santa-esque ones, red with white trim, the holly-bedecked, the ruffled and lovely. Marketers send out exuberant press releases, conveying a theme of “Hey! You know what makes a great gift? A fancy apron!”
More than five years into the apron renaissance and it shows no signs of cresting. There are, right now on anthropologie.com, aprons for sale for $88. Shabbyapple.com’s are a bit more modest, in the $32 to $42 range, but no less ring-a-ding.
June Cleaver lives, but reclaimed! Emancipated, and with choices. So much has been written and analyzed about this, about the apron being rejected as a shackle to women but then rediscovered as self-expression.
“The good news is that the apron’s disappearance of thirty years or so was just temporary,” wrote Pueblo apron historian EllynAnne Geisel in “The Apron Book.” “Even though American women are now fully entrenched in the workplace, they are also back to cooking and sewing and crafting and nesting like never before… So aprons are coming out of the attic and back to the kitchen.”
Yes, but what is the apron saying? This is a debate for those privileged with the time to have it. It meanders hand-in-hand with the free trade and locally sourced and organic, the artisanal, the Instagram-documented. Tie on the apron, plate the small, small desserts at a Real Simple-style dinner party.
But away from all that, and toward the inspiration for Geisel’s passion for aprons, is that “no amount of progress or technological advancement or fickle fashion tastes can change the fact that an apron has always been the best, most commonsensical means of covering up and protecting our clothes from grime,” she wrote.
Going all the way back, to Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis (King James Version), “And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.”
As a tool, aprons are indispensable, covering and protecting — blacksmiths from sparks and farriers from hooves, butchers from blood, chefs from spattering bechamel. They symbolize work in theory and in practice.
“I think it is even a better idea to get a day’s work off before I take my apron off,” wrote Edward William Bok in “The Americanization of Edward Bok.”
That even when an apron was made from the humblest of flour sacks or burlap, people still saw fit to embroider them or ruffle them or otherwise make them lovely speaks to the undimmable human spark. It speaks to the marriage of function to form, even knowing that time and wear and multiple washings will dim the form in the service of function.
And what of the function, beyond the protecting of clothes? Consider the frontier woman with the flour-sack apron tied over her long prairie skirt, wiping her dishwater-wet hands on her apron as she moves to the doorway to study the darkening sky. Consider the chef, newly arrived in America, heedless of the tomato splatters on his white apron, laboring to recreate the taste of far away and sunnier days.
Consider the grandmother, apron tied around her time-thickened waist, furtively popping a ball of cookie dough into eager young mouths like baby birds. Consider the grill master, tongs protruding A-frame from the apron pocket, secretly wondering whether he can live up to his promise to blow everyone’s minds.
Sweat is wiped with aprons. And tears, dabbed with a well-worn corner. Hugs disappear into the familiar folds of them, breathing in the scents that are home and security. Hands tucked into apron pockets, and who knows what they’ll bear when they eventually reappear.
Half-aprons tied at the waist, all ruffles and bows and genesis for more than a few naughty fantasies. Full, bibbed aprons, aprons that don’t mess around. Over-the-head aprons, front and back and tie at the side, delivering meals and then doing the dishes.
All of them, all of them, made to be worn, made to be stained, made to be washed again and again until only the ghosts are left.
Made to be used, to be tied on with a knot or a bow, protecting the clothes until the task is through.