APRONS Hostesses don symbolic tie to the past

Aprons were once regarded as emblems of domesticity and femininity.
Today, an apron is simply a splatter shield. But think back a generation or two to the world of black-and-white TV, when aprons bursting with color were emblems of domesticity and femininity.
But then it was the '60's, and as fast as you could say "Lucille Ball," aprons plummeted out of fashion -- housewifely accouterments that came to symbolize a woman's secondary role. These frilly, backless wraps and flirty, skirtlike cocktail numbers were blazingly incorrect.
Now, they're coming back through a mist of nostalgia as collector's items, a small part of the growing affection for vintage clothing. Hip boutiques are selling snappy little reproductions, decorated with piping, ruffles and appliqued cherries. There's even an apron museum exhibit making the rounds.
Women who don an old-fashioned apron today consider it an ironic homage, a little wink at the idea of homemaking as entertainment, not duty. The reverse symbolism gives the daintiest aprons the strongest images.
Elizabeth Mason, owner of the West Hollywood vintage boutique the Paper Bag Princess, collects vintage cocktail aprons and always wears one when she entertains.
"It identifies you as the sexy hostess," she said. "I have one in satin that is very small. It looks as if you have a merry widow on. Imagine having that on as you greet your guests."
Mason's boutique, where stars and costume designers shop for designer evening gowns and the like, quickly sells out of the little aprons as soon as she gets her hands on them. For those who entertain at home, they have become a must-have accessory for the vintage dress.
Nothing serious
Time softens many memories, good and bad. It's hard to take seriously a '50s apron's implication of servitude and oppression when it features frolicking puppies or bubbling champagne glasses. The very idea of a fancy apron worn just for serving cocktails seems ludicrous -- and thus incredibly compelling for those who would rather dress the part than actually be the part.
The same aesthetic reasons that motivate many women to collect antiques or wear vintage clothing attract them to aprons, said Kathleen Schaaf, owner of Meow, a Long Beach, Calif., vintage clothing store.
"A lot more of the vintage collectors are entertaining at home," she said. "They have their Bakelite-handle silverware, Bauer pottery and their stainless-steel barware sets. I've seen women wearing a little hostess apron over her vintage dress." The aprons simply complete, and improve, the picture.
When she's lucky, Schaaf may come across an apron that matches a tablecloth, or one that is in pristine condition because it was worn for a single Christmas dinner. Even the best examples are still affordable, however. At her boutique and on eBay, the Internet auction Web site, most vintage aprons can be had for less than $20. Some of Mason's most exceptional examples command prices of $125, even up to $200, and are sold before they hit the showroom floor.
In 15 years of collecting, Pasadena, Calif., photographer Ramona Rosales has paid no more than $15 for any of her vintage aprons. She wears various styles for cooking, cocktail parties, baby showers, and the most tattered ones for handling chemicals in the darkroom. Her passion for them isn't rooted in practicality, however.
Although she's been known to host cocktail parties and dress the part of the '50s hostess in an elegant apron, her favorites are homemade. "Those have the best character because they have some funny little details," Rosales said.
The handwork skills may be vanishing, but the vintage apron is beginning to resurface. Anthropologie, the retailer of retro clothing and housewares, recently introduced reproductions of full- and half-length vintage aprons. Anthropologie aprons were conceived as part of the trend for entertaining at home, said Polly Dickens, the chain's home furnishings design director.
Road show
For some fans, however, aprons are a telling part of women's history. Author and collector Joyce Cheney has lent some of her 300-plus apron collection to a traveling museum show called Apron Strings: Ties to the Past.
As it toured the South and East, the exhibit of vintage and contemporary aprons helped stimulate new interest in aprons, their artwork and their meanings. Cheney's 2000 book, "Aprons: Icons of the American Home," helped document the influence of a once-common, now rarer, element of popular culture.
Although many historians point to the women's movement of the 1970s as the end of the apron and its symbolic link to women's oppression, Cheney found other culprits.
"After the '50s, people started to get washers and dryers," she said. "So the practical reason to protect clothes vanished some." Cloth and ready-made clothing prices became cheaper, which reduced the need to cover precious clothing.

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