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
Medieval aprons were almost always undecorated. In only a very
few instances can we see aprons with evidence of decorative needlework.
Shown at right 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
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 depiction
of medieval 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.
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
brown. 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.