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 were emblems of domesticity and femininity.
They had style then.
But as fast as you could say "Lucille Ball," aprons plummeted out of fashion - viewed as housewifely accouterments that symbolized a woman's secondary role. These frilly wraps and flirty 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 reproductions decorated with piping, ruffles and appliqued cherries. And an apron museum exhibit is 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 Paper Bag Princess, collects vintage cocktail aprons and wears one when she entertains.
"It identifies you as the sexy hostess," she says. "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."
It sure beats the usual utilitarian, knee-length bib that makes a party hostess look more like a waiter than a discriminating woman of style.
Mason's boutique, where stars and costume designers shop for designer evening gowns and the like, sells out of the little aprons as soon as it gets them. For those who entertain at home, they are becoming a must-have accessory for the vintage dress.
As Mason says: "What else are you going to do? Wear a denim shirt like Martha Stewart?"
Time softens many memories, good and bad. It's hard to take seriously an 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.
Cocktail aprons summon glamour, not grits, and they weren't created for protection, Mason says.
"They were made out of tulle and were completely porous, and anything you spilled on them would go directly onto the dress," she says.
The same aesthetic reasons that motivate many women to collect antiques or wear vintage clothing attract them to aprons, says Kathleen Schaaf, owner of Meow, a vintage clothing store in Long Beach, Calif.
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 the Internet auction Web site eBay, most vintage aprons can be had for less than $20.
But 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 the world of collectibles, aprons remain a relative bargain. Recently on eBay, a set of 16 vintage aprons was selling for $33 after 15 bids. "They're highly collectible," says eBay spokesman Jim Griffith, "but they are one of these areas of collecting that's still affordable. If you're into collecting and looking for a field, it's probably a good time to be into it."
In 15 years of collecting, Ramona Rosales has paid no more than $15 for any of her vintage aprons. The photographer from Pasadena, Calif., wears various styles for cooking, cocktail parties and baby showers - saving the most tattered ones for handling chemicals in the darkroom. Her passion for them, however, isn't rooted in practicality.
"I've always worn vintage clothes," Rosales says. "When you get dressed up in a particular era, it's the perfect finishing accessory."
Although she has been known to throw 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 detail," Rosales says.
Sewing skills may be vanishing, but the vintage apron is beginning to resurface. Anthropologie, a retailer of retro clothing and housewares, recently introduced reproductions of full- and half-length vintage aprons for $28 to $38. With themes ranging from the barnyard to the hacienda, the aprons were conceived as part of the trend for entertaining at home, says Polly Dickens, the chain's director of home furnishings design.
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 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 element of popular culture.
"Many people under 40 probably don't have any relatives who wore aprons," Cheney says. "To them, they've just become historical artifacts."
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 says. "So the practical reason to protect clothes vanished some." Prices for cloth and ready-made clothing became lower, reducing the need to cover precious clothing.
Still, the apron remains a powerful symbol of femininity. As Cheney points out, when cartoon animals need a gender, animators give the male a bow tie and the female an apron.
And when world champion mountain biker Jacquie Phelan of Marin County, Calif., wants to emphasize that finesse is part of her sport, she'll wear an apron - the most outrageous, frilly, girlie one she can find.
"The beauty of wearing an apron on a bike is you can twist it around to cover your rear end so it gets the mud," Phelan says. "It's a removable, washable mudflap."
When she wears one during a ride with mostly men, the apron becomes a statement about how women haven't abandoned the kitchen while embracing the world of competition.
Once the riders reach their destination, Phelan - who founded the Women's Mountain Bike & Tea Society - unpacks her Thermos of hot tea, twists the muddy apron around to the front and starts pouring.
"There you are," she says. "A little bit of civility in a muddy mountain field."
Valli Herman-Cohen is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.