Kitchen Couture

Like cargo pants and Dickies and running shoes and a host of other forms of apparel, aprons began with a humble function, to help organize tools and protect the clothes underneath for someone working in a kitchen. But an article in today’s Wall Street Journal reports that they are now fashionable for their own sake, ordered and worn by women who have no intention of cooking at all. Here’s a choice quote from an nouveau apron wearer (beware if you are easily nauseated): “I wear them almost every night. They’re sexy. I wear them to the mailbox and people honk at me.” The photo with the piece presumably intends to illustrate the sexiness of aprons; current models have Gucci-style colors and swirl patterns, and are cut to form-fit around the waist and “show off curves.” The reporter purports that these “represent women’s new embrace of domesticity on their own terms, combining practicality and sex appeal.” That sounds like straight out of a PR release blather to me. But it’s a creepy statement, especially the more you think about its assumptions. What, exactly, is “new” about this domesticity to make it on a woman’s “own terms”? The servile sexuality? The constricting design? The trendiness? The bringing of fashion-oriented self-consciousness, the need to conform and be hip, into the most intimate and pragmatic of spaces? It seems as though women are supposed to feel gratified that they can compensate for the circumscribed world of domestic life by sexualizing it. Some compensation. That making yourself beautiful is somehow something you do for yourself is one of the ripest pieces of ideology going. Nothing about styling yourself as a hypersexualized servant seems to be on a woman’s terms; it seems to have everything to do with accomodating oneself to a man’s terms, to his particular fanatsies. The apron, as Joyce Cheney, an apron collector (is there anything uncollected?) argues in the article, can be mark of professionalism for the career homemaker, dignifying her role with a uniform. But uniforms denote one’s being subject to disciplinary control as much as they signify dignity; it’s this aspect of the apron that makes it, with slight modification, into part of the fetish wardrobe. Sexy aprons are ultimately about sexual fantasy, about games of dominance and submission whose voluntary nature doesn’t make who adopts the roles become arbitrary.