Why aprons have become the must-have stay-at-home accessory

An apron is a practical item for those of us cooking at home now. It also offers a hint of mood-lifting luxury

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published April 25, 2020 3:30PM (EDT)

Woman tying apron (Getty Images/Gavin Kingcome Photography)
Woman tying apron (Getty Images/Gavin Kingcome Photography)

It's interesting to see, in times of crisis, what we purchase as a way to soothe our anxieties. I'm not talking about the essentials, but rather the things people buy, if they're able, that provide just a little bit of joy: accessories for Zoom meetings, a new houseplant, a bag of freshly-roasted coffee. (And, for a shocking amount of Americans, baby chickens.)

And, if my Instagram feed is any indication, a new apron is on that list for a lot of people at home — myself included. 

I've seen post after post of friends holding up their quarantine cooking projects — pots of stew and French loaves cradled like babies — with their new linen or denim aprons cinched around their wastes. The "Bon Appetit"-favorite brand Hedley & Bennett is offering a new give-away package that includes knives, a subscription to Little Sous and two aprons — one kid-sized and one for adults. The hashtags #HBatHome, as well as #apron and #newapron, are continuing to pick up steam.

According to Hedley & Bennett founder Ellen Marie Bennett, they have seen more visitors to the site, something that can be attributed to both an increase in people wanting to purchase aprons and the company's "buy one, donate one" campaign, where customers can buy a face mask for themselves and a frontline worker.

"Once word got out and people started to see our Wake Up & Fight Masks, traffic to the site increased dramatically," Bennett said.  

In an informal poll of some fellow food writers, I asked if anyone had clicked "purchase" on a new one, and more than a dozen said yes. Some from Etsy, some from Anthropologie, some from Target. 

"I haven't bought one but it's definitely showing up in my quarantine shopping fantasies right now," one wrote. 

Aprons have had a pretty steady presence in the American home, worn by homemakers, wealthy women and domestic employees, since the country's founding. They became iconic in the late 1940s and '50s following WWII, as Dolores Monet writes in "History of Clothing: Aprons — Practical and Decorative Fashion Classics," when the apron "became the symbol of family, mother, and apple pie ideals." 

"It must be remembered that during the war, as well as during the Great Depression, families were often uprooted and separated; many were never seen again," Monet writes. "A simple, well run home with an intact family seemed like paradise." 

Then in the 1960s, as more and more women began to work outside the home and the idealization of housework fell out of favor, so did the at-home apron. For decades, aprons — especially the "full aprons" that tie at the neck and around the waist — were relegated to the professional kitchen. 

But this pandemic falls in the midst of an apron revival, of sorts. 

As the popularity of food media has steadily surged for the last two decades, with chefs (and Bon Appetit test kitchen staff) becoming household names, aprons have found their way back onto our bodies, embraced for practical purposes and as an outward indicator that the person wearing one have achieved a certain kind of lifestyle, where weekend cooking projects are the norm. 

When you wear an apron, people know that you're the creator of dishes that are filled with ingredients that splatter and stain, like homemade wine-soaked bolognese and fresh, eggy pasta rolled out on a soft bed of flour. 

The Atlantic's Amanda Mull wrote about this phenomenon through the lens of the "luxurious lifestyle products" that are increasingly present in the hands of food media influencers and their admirers.

"Colorful cast-iron cookware by brands like Le Creuset and the retro, brightly hued stand mixers by KitchenAid aren't just culinary workhorses," Mull writes. "They've become small markers of stability and sophistication, coveted by young people for whom traditional indicators of both often remain out of reach." 

As our worlds have been completely upended, for many people the ideas of stability and sophistication carry an even deeper appeal now, though the way they are expressed may look a little different than before we began staying at home. An apron, that symbol of domesticity, feels like a tangible tie to its previous peak era, with the act of regularly entertaining friends and loved ones over dinner, with no thought given to social distancing, feeling like a distant luxury now.

Kristin Amico, a freelance writer currently quarantined in Rochester, N.Y., says her new apron is a practical purchase, but it also feels like a little luxury.

"I've always been a baker — cakes, cookies and such — but have recently started baking bread, too," she said. "That creates a bit of a mess, with telltale patches of flour dust on my clothes. So I needed an apron in a very practical sense, but staying at home, except for occasional trips to the grocery store, I also wanted an apron that made me feel put together." 

As baking is her only real creative outlet right now, an apron that saves her black hoodies from being covered in flour makes her feel good. 

"A tiny bit of joy in a rather strange and uncertain time," Amico said. "I have been living in the same three to four sweatshirts and yoga pants. I have nowhere to go and wearing a cute, gray linen apron with pockets makes me feel cute, pulled together, and appropriately dressed for the job." 

Ellen Marie Bennett said that is one of the inspirations behind their company's products. 

"One of the magic things about Hedley & Bennett is that it makes everyone look and feel like a badass," she said. "If you're at home, and spending more time cooking like we all are, you need a uniform appropriate for the occasion: getting s**t done in the kitchen." 

There's a lesson there that can be applied to the greater quarantine experience. Sure, it's a time for practicality. But if we can find small, affordable joys along the way, no matter how small — buying a new coupe for Zoom cocktail hours, rewatching "Schitt's Creek" for the third time, purchasing a professional-quality apron — it may be worth it, emotionally, to invest. 

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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Apron Commentary Domesticity Fashion Home Cooking Shelter In Place