May 27, 2010
I am getting married next month, and one of my favorite gifts I’ve received so far is an apron. Not one of those canvas unisex jobs, either—this is a ruffled beauty that just happens to fit in perfectly in my Eisenhower-era aqua-and-yellow kitchen. It looks like it could have been lifted from June Cleaver’s wardrobe, but it wasn’t; it came from the store Anthropologie, which sells a dozen or so retro-style versions of the garment that fell out of favor around the same time as doing housework in high-heeled pumps.
Well, aprons are back—showing up not just at Anthropologie (which favors a looks-vintage-but-isn’t aesthetic), but on the craftsy online marketplace Etsy, at upscale kitchenware stores like Sur la Table and, in original form, on eBay.
Should feminists be concerned that one of the most powerful symbols of female domesticity and, by extension, sexism, has made a comeback? Should I be concerned, as my wedding approaches, that I am willingly embodying a stereotypical vision of wifedom if I wear one?
Last month blogger (and apron-wearer) Kristen Leigh Painter described on The Huffington Post (and elsewhere) how she had “a feminist crisis” while reading a newspaper article about the trend. She took offense to the author’s uncritical use of quotes such as, “If I had this apron, I would never leave the kitchen,” and a description of advertisements showing models wearing nothing but an apron and high heels. These representations sound like they came out of Ladies’ Home Journal, circa 1950, when the highest aspirations a woman was supposed to have were to satisfy her husband’s desires in both the kitchen and the bedroom.
Painter theorized that the return of such a retrograde view of femininity, or at least its trappings (not just aprons but cupcakes, casseroles and canning, the three C’s of good housekeeping) has to do with the current economic troubles. She compared it to the postwar return of women to the housewife role after making up a large portion of the workforce during World War II.
Personally, although I share Painter’s concern about the perpetuation of sexist stereotypes, I think there’s more (or maybe it’s less) to the apron trend than nostalgia for traditional gender roles. I think most women who are wearing them, myself included, do so with a touch of irony. The thought of my becoming a subservient housewife who is anything less than an equal partner to my future husband is ridiculous, I am happy to note. I do most of the cooking because I enjoy it, but my partner does at least his fair share of the housework. In fact, tonight, while I was working, he made dinner, did the dishes, then ran out to the store to get us some ice cream. Although women still face sexism in many forms, Betty Friedan’s “problem that has no name” is no longer usually one of them.
Last year Shannon Drury wrote an essay in the Minnesota Women’s Press (reposted on Alternet) called “Feminist Housewives Reclaim the Kitchen.” The fact that you can even put the words feminist and housewife together represents a change in thinking from the days of Friedan’s 1963 The Feminine Mystique, which is generally credited with launching the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Drury pointed to contemporary feminist magazines like Bust that embrace the traditional domestic arts of baking and sewing. She wrote, “Many of the new wave of women stitchers and bakers see kitchen work as a reclamation of a lost culture that belonged only to women. The clothing follows suit: What a dashiki might be to a Black Panther, an apron might be to a feminist blogger of the 21st century.”
In any case, aprons—unlike other symbols of female oppression—actually serve a function. If I start vacuuming in high heels, then it’s time to worry.
What do you make of the apron revival?
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.