Apron strings tie cooks to the past

In a drawer near our kitchen, a small stack of aprons lies almost forgotten under dish towels and potholders. But every Thanksgiving, when a marathon of cooking begins, I pull out an apple-green cobbler's apron that belonged to my mother, tie the strings, and reach for the recipe box.

Cocooned in this vintage cotton print from the 1950s, I'm protected from cranberry sauce bubbling on the stove, from flour smudges as I roll out pastry dough, and from grease spatters as I baste the turkey and make gravy. What could be more practical?

Yet aprons, long a cozy symbol of domesticity and motherhood, have become an endangered species as women's lives have undergone seismic shifts. The apron's threatened demise has as much to do with changes in fashion as it does with changes in meals. Who needs an apron if you're wearing casual clothes that can be tossed in the washer?

And who needs an apron to microwave a frozen dinner or open a Chinese takeout carton?

Aprons now represent a symbolic generational divide between the grandmothers and mothers who always wore them and their daughters and granddaughters who never do. Yet so essential were they to earlier generations that in my seventh-grade home economics class - then mandatory for girls - one of our sewing projects involved making a cobbler's apron.

As we pinned tissue-paper patterns to fabric, stitched seams, and added rickrack trim, we learned more than skills with needles and thread. We were also receiving silent messages about the homemaking roles everyone assumed we would someday play.

Who could have imagined then that by the 1970s, aprons would fall into disfavor and begin gathering dust on closet hooks as women headed out to work? For many, the unofficial mantra of the day was: Off with homespun symbols of repressive domesticity! On with dress-for-success suits, promising liberation!

Not surprisingly, aprons themselves underwent a transformation.

Instead of the usual dainty cotton prints and cross-stitched ginghams, the new styles, available in trendy stores for trendy prices, featured plain, heavy-duty fabrics. Some also carried wry messages on the front, such as: "For this I spent 4 years in college?"

Aprons also migrated from the kitchen to the backyard. Men proudly began wearing macho versions to flip hamburgers on the grill. These now sport their own brand of culinary humor: "Danger: Dad Cooking."

Today vintage aprons and apron patterns from the 1940s and '50s show up on eBay as collector's items. They're also the subject of nostalgic books and sentimental museum exhibits - aprons under glass.

How many apron-wearers from past generations could have imagined that something so humble and utilitarian would be elevated to a 21st-century art form?

Those women in the past often collected a wardrobe of aprons in varied colors and styles - bib, pinafore, cobbler - some for everyday use, others for Sunday best. In the 1950s and '60s, they added frilly "hostess aprons" for entertaining guests. Made of frothy fabrics such as organza, taffeta, and eyelet lace, embroidered and even bejeweled, these half-aprons conveyed the image of a relaxed hostess for whom the party was effortless.

Aprons will probably never make a widespread comeback. Yet on holidays like Thanksgiving, as thoroughly modern cooks reach into drawers and closets for a protective covering to tie around their waist, they may feel a connection with the past, and a kinship with those before them who took pride in the endless details of homemaking.

Aprons strings, those humble yet powerful domestic symbols, tie us to traditions, evoking memories of all the family cooks who have shaped our everyday meals and holiday feasts through the years.

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