website shop blog tutorials noticeboard thegilbertcollection email



belts &

& bags






Medieval Aprons

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.

Decoration on aprons
Medieval aprons were almost always undecorated. In only a very few instances can we see aprons with evidence of decorative needlework.

Shown 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 source.

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 heavily soiled.

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.

The 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 question.

Apron colours
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.

Job-specific variations
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.


Copyright © Rosalie Gilbert
All text & photographs within this site are the property of Rosalie Gilbert unless stated.
Art & artifact images remain the property of the owner.
Images and text may not be copied and used without permission.