Aprons in the archives

Aprons do not appear very often in photos from the past, except as part of formal uniforms. People tended to dress in their best clothes when they had their photograph taken, meaning that it is harder to find a record of the garments people wore for everyday work. Aprons, especially, could be quickly and easily removed to reveal nicer clothing underneath, even for an informal photograph.

Image: Unknown photographer. Woman and child, 1900-1910s.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 1639-10782.

Though worn infrequently today, aprons have a long history. They were common garments in the times when fabric was expensive and clothing was time-consuming to make, mend, and wash. They were mainly intended to be worn either at home or at work, to protect clothes from becoming dirty and damaged. While that same general purpose remained unchanged, apron styles went in and out of fashion over the decades. Browsing through our image databases reveals how aprons have been worn by women, men and children in New Zealand over the past 130 years.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, women wore aprons for work around the home and property, such as cooking, cleaning, washing, gardening, farm work, or other messy tasks. Aprons were also regularly worn by women who worked as nurses or servants.

Image: Herman John Schmidt. Missie Boyce and nurse, 1909.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 31-58674.

The style usually covered as much of their dress as possible, with a long skirt and a pinafore top; sometimes the apron covered both front and back and was tied at the sides. They were often plain white – meaning they could be easily bleached clean – but could incorporate ruffles and embroidery for those who could afford the extra expense.

Image: Advertisement, Otago Witness, 7 October 1908, Page 2.

Men in this period also wore aprons for many different kinds of jobs, including butchers, grocers, cooks, blacksmiths, saddlers, bootmakers, printers, hairdressers, painters, and carpenters – to name a few! An advertisement for Kean's on Queen Street in 1928 shows that different trades required different styles of apron: while a printer's apron was of black drill with pockets, a carpenter's apron was brown canvas with a split, a butcher's apron was striped and only from the waist down, and a baker's apron was of white drill with cross strings.

Image: Advertisement, Auckland Sun, 25 September 1928, Page 13.

Some evidently made their own aprons rather than buying them from a store. Here an image of a boatbuilder shows him wearing a makeshift apron created from an old piece of sailcloth.

Image: Unknown photographer. Boatbuilder, 1920s.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 1654-ALB324-38-1.

Men continued to wear aprons for some kinds of work throughout the twentieth century, as the images of a store keeper from 1944 and of Glen Innes butchers in 1989 show, and still wear them for certain jobs - particularly in the food and hospitality industries - today.

Image: J.H Hitchcock, et al. A reliable storeman, about 1944.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1631-ALB319-03-04

Image: Stuart Page. Avons Butchery, Glen Innes, 1989.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 273-PAG003-05.

Aprons were also frequently worn by children in the past, to help prevent their clothes from getting dirty. They were mostly garments for girls, whose clothes were perhaps made from more delicate and paler fabrics which were harder to wash, but were sometimes also worn by very young boys, as seen in a photo taken by Charles Dawes of his children, Abner and Pearl, in the 1910s.

Image: Charles Peet Dawes. Pearl Dawes and Abner Earle Dawes, 1910s.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 1572-391.

Another of Charles Dawes' photos, of a crying toddler (likely also one of his own children), shows how children's aprons were often made with tucks along the bottom so that they could be made longer – "let down" – as the child grew taller.

Image: Charles Peet Dawes. Crying child, 1900 -1910s.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 1572-620.

Older girls wore aprons much like their mothers, to help with chores around the home. The bib tops without ties would be pinned to the blouse or dress to keep them in place.

Image: J. Jackson. A busy morning in the kitchen, Auckland Weekly News, 28 July 1910.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections AWNS-19100728-2-6.  
Image: G. R. H. Ibbetson. Washing day in the backblocks, Auckland Weekly News, 13 May 1909.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections AWNS-19090513-15-3.

In the 1890s and early 1900s, it was very common for girls to wear aprons to school. These were usually of the pinafore style, and could sometimes be frilly and pretty, and other times plain and practical. School photos from this period show the variety of aprons worn – some cleaner than others!
Image: John Low. Pupils in front of school building, 1880-1890s.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 4-7255.

This practice seems to have been phased out by 1919, as no girls are pictured wearing aprons in school photographs from the 1920s. Aprons were still worn by children at home, however, as revealed by sewing patterns published in newspapers. "Wendy's Little Dressmakers," a regular section of the children's page in the Nelson Evening Mail, included simple patterns for girls to make aprons for themselves during the 1920s and 1930s, with diagrams and instructions for cutting, sewing, and decorating with embroidery. An apron was probably seen as an easy thing to sew for children just starting to learn. If you have a sewing machine and fabric at home, why not have a go at making an apron from the past!

Image: "Black Cats for Luck!" Nelson Evening Mail, 2 December 1933, Page 9.
If you don’t have any other fabric to hand, a very simple child's apron can be made from a pillowcase. Lay the pillowcase out portrait orientation, with the closed end at the top and open end at the bottom. Take the two top corners and fold them in to the centre, so that they just touch. Either machine- or hand-sew along the edges of these corners (following the yellow lines on the diagram below), leaving a gap at the top and bottom of each side. Using a safety pin as a bodkin, thread a long cord, ribbon, or piece of elastic up through one side then back down through the other. Loop over your head and tie the ends behind you!

Image: Harriet Matilda Rogers. Pillowcase apron, 15 December 2020.

Aprons were common garments for adult women to wear at home from the 1920s through to the 1960s. Styles loosely followed the shapes of daywear fashions. In the 1920s, "overalls" became popular, which covered the entire outfit. These were sold at Smith & Caughey's in Auckland, along with a range of other apron styles. New developments in fabrics allowed for waterproof "rubber" aprons, available in both plain and patterned designs. 

Image left: Advertisement, Star (Auckland), 18 October 1921, Page 11.
Image right: 
Advertisement, Star (Christchurch), 13 January 1934, Page 15.

It was important that aprons be "fashionable as well as serviceable" – whether just for personal pleasure to brighten the daily chores, or because the wearer might be seen by neighbours or visiting friends during the day. As a 1938 Ballantynes advertisement asked, "Why be a drab figure in the house?" when it was possible to "bring a welcome note of colour and gaiety into this indispensable item of the housewife's working equipment"!

Aprons could be homemade, store bought, or a combination of the two: in the 1930s and 40s, stores also often sold pre-made plain aprons with "tracing" – the outline of a pattern which could then be decorated at home with embroidery. Some examples of embroidered aprons can be seen below.

Image: Alfred Burrell. Woman at the Burrell family farm, Waimauku, 1930s.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 7004-32-08.

Image: Unknown photographer. Two roomed apartment in Ponsonby, Auckland Weekly News, 25 October 1944. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections AWNS-19441025-23-3. 

In black and white photos from the 1930s and 40s, we can see that many aprons were made from highly patterned fabrics, such as the one worn by Tangi Diamond uncovering a hangi at Te Henga. In the 1950s and 60s however, colour photography shows us for the first time how vibrant these aprons could be.
Image: Unknown photographer. Hangi at Te Henga, 1930s.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections JTD-02K-05664-1.

Image: John Burgess Rowntree. Frances Rowntree and Peter preparing dinner, 1961.
 Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 1528-61011.

Image: Rykenberg Photography. El Matador Restaurant staff, 1968.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1269-19681005-01.

Apron-wearing began to go out of fashion from the 1970s onwards, as more women worked outside the home, laundry became easier with the availability of washing machines, and clothing became increasingly cheaper to replace. Images of people wearing aprons – especially children - become even harder to find!

In recent years, however, a revival of crafting and sewing has led to a renewed interest in making aprons, and in New Zealand's apron heritage. Check out Rosemary MacLeod's eBook Aprons which includes 11 patterns from women's magazines from the 1930s-1950s, recreated with a modern twist. 

Do you wear an apron when you cook, garden, or do other messy work? 
Author: Harriet Rogers, Special Collections.


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