STYLES - DECORATION - COLOURS - JOB SPECIFIC VARIATIONS
Aprons are an item of clothing
which have remained basically unchanged in both form and function
for hundreds of years.
Aprons have been worn by women to protect the clothing underneath
when performing other work. Only at certain time periods in history
has the apron become purely decorative as a fashion item or part
of a national costume. Neither of these apply to medieval aprons,
which were purely functional.
Shown at right is a detail
from the 1490 Grimani Breviary for the month of June. It
shows a woman working outside in warm weather. She
wears no shoes and a hat, has her kirtle tucked up at the front
and is wearing an apron to protect it. At left is a detail from
a copy of the Tacuinum Sanitatus showing a women at work
indoors dying or washing fabric. Her apron protects her gown and
she has her sleeves rolled up while her headscarf keeps her hair
out of the way.
Aprons appear to have been made from linen. They were usually
white or unbleached, rectangular and have apron strings which
were long enough to be functional but no longer than they needed
to be for the individual wearer.
Length-wise, aprons varied
from below the knee to almost down to the ground. They were worn
by women for indoor and outdoor work at all times of the year.
Medieval aprons were almost always undecorated. In only a very
few instances can we see aprons with evidence of decorative needlework.
at left is a detail from the English manuscript from the 14th
century, the Luttrel Psalter, showing a woman feeding chickens
and wearing an apron with some kind of needlework at the top.
Another early 14th century English manuscript, the Holkheim
Bible, shows red needlework on aprons in several folio pages.
At left, the Bohun Psalter, shows a women with an apron which
is decorated on folio 86r.
An article published in 2001 by Marni McLeavy for the Queensland
Smocking Guild cites smocking as a traditional 14th century
English technique, although the only source for this I have seen
points to the Luttrel Psalter aprons as the earliest visual
On a practical note, it is interesting to see that the aprons
people usually claim to be smocking are the ones being worn on
women performing outside chores. Any woman who has worked on a
farm knows that this is a recipe for disaster. The smocking catches
every bit of dirt and grime and doesn't wash well if it has been
By comparison, there are
many images of women indoors who are wearing plain aprons. If
the pictures which looked like smocking were indoors and the plain
ones were outdoors, this would make a certain amount of practical
sense. Outdoor clothes are usually more utilitarian and less decorative.
This in itself makes the decorative apron images all the more
fascinating to the historical researcher and re-enactor alike.
Holkeim Bible apron, seen at left, is a rare example of
an early 14th century apron with decorative stitching or weaving
in red alongside a decorative band. The apron itself appears gathered
onto the waistband.
Other aprons, like the Luttrell
Psalter apron might be a sewn, decorated band like this or a gathered
tachnique like smocking.
Without any written evidence, it is impossible to verify if the
decorative feature is smocking or another kind of fancy stitching.
There is no real evidence that aprons were smocked with any great
regularity, but in slightly later years when chemises were starting
to be seen at the top of clothing, smocking was used, so the technique
was not entirely unknown. Just how early it was used, is the big
Aprons were almost always white or unbleached. Again, only rare
instances in the 13th and 14th centuries show coloured aprons.
In another example of non-traditional aprons, the Luttrel Psalter
detail at left shows a woman wearing a decorated apron which is
One or two other illuminations show black or green, but these
are not common.
Women's aprons during the medieval period are always of the style
which does not have a bib on the top. Only a few images that I
know of, including the detail shown at right from the Holkham
Bible from 1330 shows a woman wearing an apron of a different
style to the usual tie-around-the-waist style.
In this specific instance, the woman pictured is doing a job generally
done by a man- blacksmithing. The apron being worn seems consistent
with male blacksmith aprons which were worn at the time, indicating
that the apron itself is more specific to the occupation than
the the gender of the wearer.
© Rosalie Gilbert
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