Aprons are potent symbols of women and domesticity.
As utilitarian garments, they are worn and connected to a variety of professional and occupational settings: chefs, butchers, blacksmiths, waiters and waitresses, bartenders, gardeners; even the helpful associates at Home Depot all wear aprons.
But the most persistent meanings associated with aprons are gender specific.
The word and the visual conjure up a life lived, a meal cooked, a life suppressed, a secret stashed away, a meal served, and a joyous holiday with all the trimmings.
Described as a shield, a bib, and a smock; what began as a masculine garment for practical purposes morphed into a statement of femininity; the housewife, the grandmother, the mother. The apron became a symbol of family, home cooked-meals, comfort food. While wealthy and upper class women would often accessorize their lace-trimmed aprons with a string of pearls and cluster earrings, lower and middle class women wore simple aprons – splattered with sauces and gravies; the day’s meal, and-their accessory: a ladle or a spatula, utensils.
But what lurked under that apron?
That stained half-skirt?
Pockets filled with tissues and recipes and phone numbers and packs of cigarettes and long lost memories.
How many of us tugged at our mother’s apron strings hoping to be seen and heard and loved, hoping to get her attention? How many women hid their deepest desires or their most painful abuses underneath a stained and frayed apron? How many women were domestics – the perfectly starched ironed apron their daily uniform? How many women wore frilly aprons for their husbands and their lovers in the privacy of their bedrooms?
How many young girls and young boys sat at the kitchen table watching as their aproned mother stood over a stove basting a turkey, or stirring a pot of soup… or burning a roast?
In the late 1960’s and the 70’s something else began to stir: women burning their bras – marching for equality and raising their consciousness – no longer accepting the idea that a woman’s place was in the home; aprons were untied and tossed, banished to drawers and hooks where they would hang on the back of a door.
If you ask a fifty- or sixty-year-old woman today what memory she has and holds of her mother wearing an apron she will often answer: Suppression, unfulfilled dreams, longing, entrapment and emotional bondage.
But times have changed and women are no longer tethered to the kitchen and memories can be recycled into art.
Domestic Matters: The Uncommon Apron, curated by Gail M. Brown, a remarkable exhibit of contemporary objects and sculptural forms, explores aprons in this context: as political and emotional symbols of traditional women’s roles and domestic labor.
Brown originally conceived of this show more than twenty years ago after viewing a collection of commercially produced aprons in a regional museum in NY State. The experience of that show, which Brown described as “souvenir-shop-like…tediously repeating places and issues of domestic labor, the worker as the wearer and her identify and recognition,” prompted her to consider what artists could do with this functional object.
Brown invited forty-eight contemporary artists to create one of a kind works in craft media “which comment and challenge changing social roles and mores, topics about work, familial life and identity…”
The results, now on view at the exhibit at Peters Valley School of Craft in Layton, NJ, are diverse in form and substance, breathtaking in the depth and breadth of their social and political commentary and challenge. They celebrate a range of personal narratives, as well as the rich possibilities for creative expression offered by craft media.
As functional objects, aprons are protective garments, meant to shield the wearer from dirt or harm. In several works in this show, the makers have taken this one step further.
Liz Alpert Fay’s #Me Too (shown above), a solid hooked rug in the shape of a shield, embeds narrative imagery that literally speaks to the #MeToo movement.
Mary Hallam Pearse’s Leaded is a traditional apron form constructed from black lead, stitched together with silk. This solid protective garment includes the menacing suggestion of a hidden gun underneath.
Marian (mau) Schoettle’s clever Untitled apron is made from the type of ‘No Trespassing’ signs typically found posted on trees to deter hunters on private property. Isn’t a woman’s body her private property?
The sheer weight of the working mother’s daily tasks is made palpable in Kate Kretz’s Emotional Labor Apron. It literally recounts in a painstakingly and perfectly embroidered narrative the multitude of things that are done to make a household run; work that is not necessarily acknowledged and generally not shared.
Several artists recall the “June Cleaver Mom” storybook era of the 1950s using recycled materials from that period.
Harriete Estel Berman’s Reality Studded with Thorns Hides the Door from the Street is constructed from recycled tin cans and vintage steel dollhouses. The bright red front door is framed with old fashioned roses, beautiful and dangerous, “Not,” the artist writes, “unlike the idealized portrayal of women” and their traditional roles.
Donna Rhae Marder’s 50’s Apron was sewn following a 1950’s sewing pattern. Her ‘fabric’ is patched together from pieces of old 50’s Gourmet magazines, publications that set standards for the perfect housewife for cooking and entertaining.
Other works celebrate more personal and sometimes fond memories.
Jen Blazina’s glass and bronze aprons, irons, and spools of thread recall her grandmother busy in the kitchen, fulfilling the prototypical idea of ‘women’s work.’
Cynthia Consentino’s stoneware sculpture, Grandma’s Apron, pays homage to her grandmother, a Sicilian immigrant who clung to traditional roles and values, and ’embraced her place in the world.’
Lisa Hunter’s A Comfort of Tea Pots and A Proper Cup recall the comfort of domestic life, ‘supportive, consistent and repeatable,’ as reflected in the ritual of afternoon tea.
The impact of the exhibit in its entirety is far more provocative than brief descriptions that only a few works convey. Surrounded by the wealth of references and messages from the totality of the compelling two and three dimensional forms in this exhibition, we are challenged to reflect on our own life, memories, and dreams; in Brown’s words, “our shared, domestic experience.”
Visit Domestic Matters: The Uncommon Apron, on view at the Sally D. Francisco Gallery in Layton, New Jersey through November 3, 2019. The Exhibition Catalog and views of the gallery can be found here.
About the Authors:
Amy Ferris is a highly accomplished author, screenwriter, television writer and editor. She was also honored by Women’s eNews as one of our ‘21 Leaders for the 21st Century‘ for 2018. Her memoir, Marrying George Clooney: Confessions From A Midlife Crisis, was adapted into an Off-Broadway play at CAP21 Theater Company.
Maleyne Syracuse is the author of “Grethe Sørensen: Construction of Textiles,” in Out of Pixels: Grethe Sørensen (2017)and “Richard Landis: A Productive Mind” in Shuttle, Spindle & Dyepot (Fall 2018).