Aprons are worn by both men and women

What is the first picture that comes to mind when you think of aprons? If you’re like me, you probably imagine a domestic woman, busying herself in the kitchen in the fashion of June Cleaver or Martha Stewart. While it is true that modern aprons are typically worn as kitchen accessories, they have a very long and colorful history.

The word “apron” is actually taken from the French word “naperon.” Loosely translated, “naperon” means napkin. This translation reveals the functional aspect of aprons, namely, that they act as a protection against stains. Of course, with the modern understanding of aprons, “napkin” provides a pretty good description of what aprons do. However, aprons has been around for a very long time, and they have been used in a variety of ways for an even wider variety of reasons.

Aprons First Used by Men

Considering that aprons are usually considered to be a feminine article of clothing it may be surprising to find that the very first aprons were used by men. Nearly a thousand years ago aprons were used by men as protective gear. However, in those times it wasn’t kitchen stains that were the province of aprons. Men who worked in blacksmith shops or other places that could be hazardous used aprons to protect themselves from smelting fires and sparks. Of course, these aprons weren’t the cotton type that can be found in the modern kitchen. They were much thicker and blocky. Since they were designed to guard against hazards more dangerous than stains, these apron predecessors had to be sturdy enough to hold out against potential burns. As a result, the earlier aprons probably left a great deal to be desired in terms of fashion, especially when compared to all of the modern options.

Military use of Aprons

Another “manly” use for aprons that was prevalent in the days of old was for the military. Again, these aprons called for even sturdier protection than the domestic and industrial models. As a result, old school military aprons were fashioned out of chain links generally constructed from iron. This “chain mail” was desirable because it was generally lightweight. This allowed for certain soldiers, such as archers who often stayed towards the back of the fray, to free up their movement. However, even the more heavily armed soldiers often wore chain mail aprons underneath their thicker armor. This provided a last line of defense against melee attacks and incoming arrows.

Medical Aprons

In keeping with the theme of aprons used for protection against danger, there is also a modern apron that is used to protect against danger that is invisible to the naked eye. The medical industry often uses aprons made with nonconductive elements to protect against x-ray radiation. Even though small amounts of x-rays aren’t usually considered to be dangerous, many x-ray technicians wear protective aprons against the cumulative effects of the radiation. Also, if you have ever been in an MRI machine it is possible that you were fitted with a protective apron to reduce these same possible dangers.

Aprons as a Means of Identification

Aprons were also used as a means of identification in the seventeenth century. When urban trade was regulated by guilds, workers used aprons that were color-coded to identify what guild they were from. This allowed for customers in the marketplace to easily find what they were looking for. For instance, butchers would use a certain colored apron while working, masons would wear another color, and so on…

Fashionable Aprons

However, these more eclectic apron uses are far afield from the traditional matronly garment that the word usually suggests. The first “fashionable” style of apron had no protective function whatsoever. The eighteenth century “pinafore” was usually worn over a shirt and pinned to the back of the clothing. These were often used as school uniforms for young women or for other semi-formal applications. Of course, modern aprons come in a variety of different styles, some having no particular functionality beyond their appearance. The hippie movement spawned an iconic apron style that was generally constructed out of patchwork. Today, there are many “retro” style aprons that harken back to this design, as well as many more modern designs that are worn outside of the kitchen.

Kitchen Aprons

Still, the most well-recognized apron is still the kitchen model. Since aprons have always walked the line between style and function, the typical kitchen apron represents the quintessential design. Beyond protecting the chef’s clothing from spills and stains, aprons often function as makeshift pot holders. It can also be very helpful for carrying unwieldy loads, such as vegetables from the garden or fruit from the orchard. Moreover, with the vast selections of aprons available, it is possible to be a dynamo in the kitchen or behind the grill and look good doing it.