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Tie One On

The apron comes full circle

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Next to the corset, and maybe the burqa, no item of women’s attire is more symbolic of female enslavement than … the apron. A symbol of domesticity in an era when a woman’s “place was in the home,” the garment was fodder for feminist critique in the 1960s. Even men have rejected the practical kitchen smock: Saying a boy is “tied to his mother’s apron strings” means he’s a sissy — not a master chef in training.

But a quick glance at the crafty website Etsy.com suggests the apron is making a comeback — this time, on its own terms. Searching for the word “apron” returns a whopping 14,081 results. A quick scan shows that the handmade garments are far from the plain and practical versions used in restaurant kitchens: These creations range from fancy and frilly to silly to sexy. The majority cost between 20 and 40 bucks.

Apron artists abound in Vermont. With her Etsy shop, local retail outlets and weekly gig at the Burlington City Arts Artists' Market, textile artist Sarah O. Green estimates that she sells around 500 aprons a year, at an average of $30 a pop. She grew up wearing them. “We had a drawer of aprons made by my grandmother, who was born in 1898. She was one of the last Victorians,” Green recalls. Unsurprisingly, the artist — who has a deep interest in fashion design — enjoys old-fashioned aprons. But her own designs combine classic and modern elements.

At The Clothing Line in Burlington, owner Heather Beal always keeps a couple dozen aprons on hand, and sells around five per week. The petite, 40-year-old shopkeeper carries vintage versions but also stocks some from a trio of local designers, including Green. Each one, she explains, has a vastly different style: Gretchen Verplanck’s “have sock monkeys on them, polka dots with stripes … They look like Pee Wee’s Playhouse on acid,” Beal describes. Brook Stewart’s versions, on the other hand, are more food focused: Each one arrives with its very own recipe. “I have one called “fudge brownie,” she mentions. “It’s brown with pink rickrack, and it looks, somehow, like a brownie.” There’s a cherry-pie version, too.

Beal surmises that she sells more aprons when she’s sporting one herself in her shop, which she does several days a week. Why wear one when you’re not cooking or cleaning? Part of the reason is practical: It keeps your clothes free from coffee stains and dirt. But, Beal notes, there’s a psychological motive as well. Wearing an apron peps her up. “Sometimes, if I’m not feeling like I have enough flair … I put an apron on and it’s much better. I feel like I’m ready for action. Like I could bake a pie.”

Green echoes, “When I tie one on, I feel very purposeful and organized … I feel cute and enjoy my domestic tasks even more.”

At least here in Vermont, the local-food movement has gone a long way to improve the apron’s image. “My husband and I have always had vegetable gardens, we used to raise lambs, we started raising mega chickens 10 years ago,” Green reveals. “I feel such profound gratitude and celebration about these ingredients I’m using to nourish my family. Tying the apron on is a little bit of a ritual,” she says.

The ritual would be recognizable to her grandmother, but the look of some of her aprons might be unusual to someone used to delicate feminine accoutrements. “My aesthetic style is to combine fabrics in unusual ways that are sweet, interesting, a little off-kilter,” Green says. One of her creations, for example, might be printed with pictures of cowboys, accented with a plaid collar from a vintage shirt that she has reclaimed from a thrift store. She also whips up racy un-Victorian potholders — dubbed “HotHolders,” from “pinup” fabric featuring buff topless men.

Another area apron maker, 34-year-old Sarah Kaeck of New Haven — who calls her company Yellow Bird Designs — has also reclaimed and updated the housewife’s costume. As a stay-at-home mom who is also a business owner, for her wearing an apron is a “celebration” of domestic work — like gardening and cooking — that she does alongside her apron-wearing husband and her children. “It’s just lovely to put on an apron and start the process of cooking,” she mentions. “It’s symbolic.”

Eye-catching, too, according to Beal, in a sexy and subversive way. An apron is flattering, she notes. “It hugs your actual waist. I think it’s kind of liberating, playful and ironic.” In addition, she suggests, “There’s something provocative about it. It’s like a skirt without a back.”

That could begin to explain why some women are wearing aprons outside of the home. When Green first got a spot at the Burlington Farmers Market, she was selling mostly to “young women visiting from big cities … They were clearly appreciating them as fashion accessories.”

“It’s definitely more and more of a trend,” Beal concurs.

Is it time for guys to tie one on? Beal’s man, who does all the cooking at her place, already does. “He loves the frilliest one, which I just adore,” she boasts. “He claims it’s because of the coverage, but I think it’s a deep-rooted thing.”

Kaeck is all over the guy thing, too. She sells feminine halter- and smock-type versions at the Middlebury Farmers Market, but she also offers styles for little girls and boys. “I don’t know a little boy who doesn’t love to make cookies,” the mother of two says. “To think a boy wouldn’t wear an apron wouldn’t cross my mind.”

Nevertheless, her aprons for little fellows aren’t flying off the shelves. “You wouldn’t believe the number of comments I get,” Kaeck remarks. When somebody does opt to pick one up, whether it’s a young mother or a matronly grandmother, she’s likely to downplay the kitchen connection: “‘Little Tommy can use this for his tools, or to grill with daddy,’” she mimics. When they see her offerings, it “stops them. They have to think about it for a minute.” A women’s studies and art student in college, Kaeck finds it surprising that “we’re still having these conversations.”

Oddly enough, if an apron is extra cute, it can also be a hard sell. When she peddles her wares, Green says, prospective buyers sometimes walk on by because her items are too stylish. “People will say, ‘These are too nice. I wouldn’t want to wear it because I wouldn’t want to get it dirty,’” she laments. “I’m not going to make ugly aprons thinking people are more likely to buy them. I don’t think that would work.”

For those who aren’t quite as worried about splashes and dribbles, aprons are an increasingly fashionable way to tie together our old and new ideas about domesticity. Who knows … one day, that old apron-string dis could be considered a compliment.

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