Aprons were an important feature of European dress for women in the 18th c. While sturdy linen or cotton aprons obviously served to protect the petticoat for women working at home or at a trade, aprons that were made of sheer muslin and embellished with embroidery also were worn as a pure fashion statement.
While I was visiting Colonial Williamsburg last month, our friends in the Margaret Hunter millinery shop were at work embroidering a gentleman's waistcoat. While all the mantua-makers are adept (very!) at fine embroidery as well as dressmaking, it took this project to make them realize a serious gap in their own wardrobes. As anyone who embroiders knows, the process involves many tiny clipped threads of silk floss that often end up stuck to the embroider's clothing - not a desirable look regardless of the century.
But 18th c. needleworkers had a remedy for this. They protected their clothes with wide aprons made of black silk. These were tied around the waist in a knot or bow at the back, with the front piece pinned in place to the bodice beneath - giving the aprons the name pinners. The silk was sufficiently slippery to keep those pesky threads from sticking, and to be easily brushed clean at the end of the day. In addition, the black silk provided a high-contrast background that was easy on the eyes for embroidery, particularly whitework. It's likely that seamstresses in the dressmaking trades also wore such aprons for the same reasons.
Seamstress Nicole Rudolph, left, models her new apron - so new that the pockets were still pinned in place when I took this picture. While she and the other women in the shop are interpreting professional needleworkers, the practical black silk pinner apron was also adopted by ladies employed in recreational needlework. In the painting, right, the Archduchess Marie Christine of Austria is spinning thread on a miniature wheel on her lap, and along with her diamonds and pearls, she's wearing a black silk apron.
Above:Photograph copyright Susan Holloway Scott, 2014. Below: Self-portrait of the Archduchess Marie Christine of Austria (1742-1798), daughter of Franz I and Maria Theresa, and spouse of Albert, Prince of Saxony, c. 1765.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.