Aprons: Out of the Kitchen, On the Road Work aprons, party aprons, Depression-era aprons. They're all part of The Apron Chronicles, a traveling exhibit managed by the Women's Museum in Dallas.

Aprons: Out of the Kitchen, On the Road

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Memories can be invoked by anything. For Proust it was the Madeleine. For Citizen Kane it was Rosebud. EllynAnne Geisel tries to draw out your recollections of things past by showing you a trunkful of old aprons.

Ms. ELLYNANNE GEISEL (Co-Curator, The Apron Chronicles): Aprons seem to be a memory trigger, and I just simply collected the stories that I was hearing.

LYDEN: A long-time homemaker herself, in 1999, Geisel began collecting aprons and carting a laundry basket full of them around the country to see what memories they would stir. She's now published The Apron Book, which unfolds like a bolt of fabric, the pattern of a life remembered through a homely object.

I think that many of us are comfortable with remembering someone else wearing an apron - a mom, a grandmother, a tante, an auntie - but we don't wear them very much ourselves anymore. What is it about an apron that's such a beautiful, nostalgic bit of our lives?

Ms. GEISEL: I believe aprons are what connect women from one generation to another in a very lovely way. Our traditions, our recipes, our dreams, our disappointments are woven into the fabric. And actually, that's what got me curious in the first place, whether other people felt a connection to the women who used to wear aprons, and did we miss her in our lives and in our homes any longer?

LYDEN: You have the most darling valise here, a little old battered trunk. It looks like, you know, you've toted it around the country, all right, back in 1935.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GEISEL: This was - yeah, you could just see this on a Greyhound Bus, you know, or I lug this around a train.

LYDEN: Oh, you've got white gloves.

Ms. GEISEL: I do, to protect the aprons from the oils on my hands.

LYDEN: These are really beautiful aprons. This one reminds me of the '20s. This gingham one with tulip quilting reminds me of the 1950s. Where'd you find them?

Ms. GEISEL: The bright yellow and periwinkle one is the first apron that I purchased, and the first one that spoke to me, that if I - I could learn the stories of the people who used to wear aprons.

LYDEN: Could you hold it up?

MS. GEISEL: Just the display - it's not that she was the world's greatest seamstress. It's just the colors that she chose. Most of my aprons for the chores are very happy fabrics. I only have a couple that are earth tones and kind of dowdy. And you know, whistle while you work? The aprons did the whistling, I think.

LYDEN: What are some of the - can you recall a couple of stories that people have told you about the women who wore these aprons?

Ms. GEISEL: Somebody told me that when - this is a great story - that when there would - you would have people over - maybe Sunday dinner or something like that - and there would be some - you know, a fly or two in the house. The women would line up with their aprons, and somebody would get at the other end and open the screen door and everybody would walk along shooing the flies with their - it would be like a line shoo-fly. And that would be women working together, and I like that idea.

Someone else told me that her family had had some hard times, and she just - instead of describing it to me as going from one job to the next, she said I would just hound one apron after the next with the goal of keeping a roof over the heads and food on the tables.

LYDEN: Tell me how they went from being something that really would once upon a time have truly been utilitarian in, say, frontier times, to the kind of garments that almost seem to decorate women back in the '30s and '40s.

Ms. GEISEL: I have aprons that are such works of art and they are so fragile, I've actually had to frame them. And they were from the Victorian times similar to showcasing a woman's domestic skills through the tiny knots that she would embroider with. And they are - my favorite apron I purchased in an Atlanta antique store, and I have never seen a color of cotton so sheer. It was delicate; it reminded me of a girl's sweet blush. Really, I just took one look and I thought this was a lovely young woman who sewed this and I hope she did marry well.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: Isn't there, though, isn't there something that - you know, aprons can either be all the comforting things that we thought of, or they can to some look repressive, something you'd put a woman in.

Ms. GEISEL: I just spoke to a group of elderly people, and I was showing my collection of aprons. And this one woman hollered out, Strangulation! They're strangulation! And I stopped and I said, that is absolutely a point of view, and a lot of women did feel that, that the strings, the ties represented holding them back. I said, but not everybody. For some of us, aprons are domestic - were and are domestic armor. Two points of view. We're all the same gender. And I think, you know, while we disagree on so many things domestic, about aprons we should be on the same track, that they're historical, and like quilts they're finally getting their day in the sun.

LYDEN: EllynAnne Geisel, it has been so much fun speaking with you and sharing the joy of your collection with you, these aprons. Thanks so much for coming in.

Ms. GEISEL: It has been a pleasure that you cannot even imagine. Thank you.

(Soundbite of sewing machine)

LYDEN: The book is called Apron: Making, Wearing, and Sharing a Bit of Cloth. The exhibit, Apron Chronicles, co-curated by EllynAnne Geisel and photographer Kristina Loggia, opens in Jackson, Wyoming on November 16th. To hear more apron stories, go to our Web site, npr.org.

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