Black Apron

16th century black apron

by Lady Amie Sparrow
Kingdom Arts & Sciences Festival
Persona Pentathlon Competition
March 7, 2009

This apron is a reproduction late 16th century black apron. The owner’s persona is a working-class woman who has an embroidery business and lives in London.  For my apron, I used black linen and black thread, employed in a whipstitch around the edges.

Overview
In a time when clothing was extremely expensive and washing machines did not exist, trying to keep one’s clothing as clean as possible was part of a person’s upkeep on their wardrobe. Aprons were a way to cover up the front of a dress to keep it clean. This is especially true for working class women. When made of finer fabrics, aprons were used as accessories.

Until I started researching information for this paper, I assumed like most re-enactors, that the majority of aprons in the Tudor era were white. However, according to Mikhaila and Malcom-Davies, “research into Essex wills shows that the majority of [67] aprons were black (57 per cent) or white (19 per cent). These colours, which were often worn for Sunday best, are not difficult to buy today. But other aprons were green (nine per cent) or blue (nine per cent) and seem to have been usual for everyday wear.”(http://www.tudortailor.com/news.htm) That’s a whopping discrepancy between practice and reality. “For the ordinary woman, unbleached blue and green linen were usual for working days, while white and balck were reserved for best.” (Tudor Tailor, pages 30-31)

“The most common fabric for working aprons was durance, which has a tight woolen weave. This made is safer than linen to wear around open fires.” Other fabrics mentioned in wills were russet, fine linen, and silk. “The greatest proportions are of worsted (33 percent) and lockram (30 percent of 106 items). Crisp creases can be observed in aprons in many contemporary paintings, showing that they were neatly folded for storage.” (ibid, page 31)


Aprons in Art
There are many images of aprons in paintings on high status ladies and on working class women. Many aprons are white, but there are also green, blue and gold aprons. I was interested in reproducing a black apron. The examples upon which I based my use of black are shown in the artwork on the following pages. I have a theory that the reason there is a descrepancy between Mikhaila and Malcom-Davies research in Essex wills and the fact that we see white or colored (non-black) aprons in a lot of contemporary artowork is that black is harder for an artist to shade and shadow than a color. As you can see from three of the five examples, black aprons are shown from profile only. In fact, the black apons shown in a frontal view are difficult to discern because you have to look at the lower and upper edges of the garment to see if a kirtle is peaking out from above or below.


Example 1: Album Amicorum of Gervasius Fabricius, 1603-1637
“Album Amicorum of Gervasius Fabricius,” originally published/produced in Würzburg and Salzburg; 1603-1637. Shelfmark/Page: Add. 17025, f.50. 
http://www.imagesonline.bl.uk/results.asp?image=013435


There are eight ladies in the garden with several different colors of apron: white, purple, blue and black. The apron on the woman at the far right shows a popular trend of the time, lace edging. If you look closely, you will see on the far left, a lady with a blue skirt and black apron starting at her waist and curving forward over her knees.


Example 2: Peasants by the Hearth by Pieter Aertsen, 1560s
Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp.
http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/a/aertsen/merry_co.html

Pieter Aertsen was a Dutch painter who had a workshop in Antwerp for several years. The young girl appears to be wearing a gray kirtle, a black partlet and a black apron. This painting is thought to represent a brothel. If that is true, then even prostitutes wore black aprons. As you can see from a frontal view, you have to look closely to realize she’s wearing an apron.


Example 3: Christ and the Adultresses, Pieter Artsen,1559
Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt.
http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/a/aertsen/christ_a.html


This painting is interpreted as having a biblical scene in the background and a scene of comtemporary life in the foreground. Though I have zoomed in on the detail, it is still hard to see in this small reproduction, the girl on the left of the scene seems to be wearing a red kirtle, a black partlet, and a black apron which starts at her waist.
This is another illustration showing the difficultly of showing a subject wearing black from the front.


Example 4: Cook in front of the Stove, Pieter Artsen, 1559
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels. 
http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/a/aertsen/cook.html


This second oil painting by Artsen clearly shows a black apron around the waist of a cook, with the side edges hanging loose from the apront ties, which do not seem to be visible in the painting or may be implied from the dark shadow at the very back edge of the model’s skirt in profile.
In this picture, the side view shows the black apron much more clearly when contrasted against the red kirtle.


Example 5: De mulieribus claris (BNF Fr. 599), 15th-16th centuries: Thamyris (fol. 50)

“Album Amicorum of Gervasius Fabricius,” originally published/produced in Würzburg and Salzburg; 1603-1637. Shelfmark/Page: Add. 17025, f.50.  http://www.imagesonline.bl.uk/results.asp?image=013435


While the costumes in this version of De mulieribus claris are a bit more fantastical than those in BNF Fr. 598, there is a wider range of colors of aprons exhibited. Thamyris’ black apron, for example, would be eminently practical for a painter.
This is another great view of a black apron in profile.


Example 6: The Hours of Charles d’Angoulême, late 15th century

The Hours of Charles d’Angoulême. (BNF Latin 1173, fol. 1) http://expositions.bnf.fr/gastro/grands/132.htm


In the image, a lady wears a black apron, the top of which wraps all the way around the gown. Again, the contrast of orange and black makes the appearance of the black apron obvious.


Aprons in Wills
Since clothing was a high cost item in the 16th century, many pieces of clothing were passed down in wills over and over until they wore out. This is true of aprons as well as partletts, petticoats, sleeves, handkerchiefs and almost all types of clothing or parts of clothing as shown in the example below. In 1590, Jenet Haworthe of Aighton pa Mitton left a black apron to Margaret Winder in her will. She also left a flaxon apron to Emma Birley.


“…To Agnes Moncke wife of George Moncke my best petticoat my best partlett my best three quarters. To my cousin Elline Tomlinson one black gown and one petticoat with one pair of black durance sleeves and one three quarters and one chest that is in her hands. To my cousin Edward Thomlinson one chest being the better of the two which are at John Waters. To Robert Tomlinson “my best hat and all that he owes me. To Emma Birley wife of William Birley one three quarters and one flaxen apron. To Margaret Winder one black apron one single stockinger and one mufflinge. To George Moncke one silver ring and a handkerchief. To Thomas Haighton schoolmaster of Whalley a handkerchief with a silver lace about. To the wife of William Waringe one old petticoat. To the wife of James Johnson alias Fielding one lower body of an old petticoat and one old smock. To the wife of Thomas Marshall one upper body and a pair of sleeves of cloth. …” (Jenet Haworthe of Aighton pa Mitton 1590: Borthwick: Wills in the York Registry vol. 24 fol. 369.)


Queen Elizabeth’s Apron
To prove how ubiquitous aprons were in the culture, there is even evidence that Queen Elizabeth had an apron, albeit a carnacion apron decorated with pearl buttons of gold and silver. Roger Mountague supplied Queen Elizabeth with large amounts of headwear according to the warrents in “A boke of Warrents” from 1585. He also seemed to have supplied her with at least one apron. His work included:


“wasshing starching overcasting hemmynge & edginge with one pounde fower oz quarter of brode golde & silver bone lase and carnacion(note 1) silke in graine of an Apron and a Towell of fine camerike for our Maundie(note 2) with Tenne peare buttons of golde silver and carnacion in graine silke to garnishe the said Apron & Towell…”
 (from Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d, pg. 255. From the British Library, London. Egerton manuscripts. especially 2806, formerly Phiullips MS 8853, “A boke of Warrantes to the great Guarderobe Tempore Regine Ylizabethae towchyng her majesties Roobes and Apparell in the chardge of John Roynon and Rauf Hoope yeoman of the Guarderobe of Roobes, 20 March 1568 to 19 February 1589.”)


Black Aprons in Inventory
Inventories of aprons list black aprons as well as aprons of other colors. “Ursula Holzschuer listed her valuables in order of their cost to make, the embroidery and the gold borders:

2 black and one green apron
1 black Schetter (dress weight linen) apron with a Sammaten (silk)
1 green apron
1 black apron with a golden bag
1 red wammasin apron with gold work
1 red wammasin apron worked with white silk
1 red-colored apron
1 white wammasin apron with a false seam (waistband)
1 white wammasin apron
5 white aprons”
(Textiler Hausrat, Kleidung und Haustextilien in Nurnberg, 1500-1650)


Notes
1. “Carnacion” is a deep rich or bright carnation color.
2. In the Christian liturgical calendar, Maundy Thursday (also known as Holy Thursday) is the feast or holy day falling on the Thursday before Easter that commemorates the Last Supper of Jesus Christ with the Apostles.

Bibliography

  1. Arnold, Janet. Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d. Manny: 1988.
  2. Bickley, Anthea. “Hand-me-Downs.” http://www.settledistrictu3a.org.uk/nchtjournal/Journals/2006/HandMeDowns/HandMeDowns.html
  3. Baroness Rainillt Leia de Bello Marisco. “The Pleated Embroidered Apron.” http://www.pleatworkembroidery.com/papers/apronresearchpaper.doc
  4. Harris, Karen. http://www.larsdatter.com: 2008.
  5. Mikhaila, Ninya and Jane Malcome-Davies. The Tudor Tailor. 2006.
  6. Zander-Seidel, Jutta. “Textiler Hausrat, Kleidung und Haustextilien in Nurnberg, 1500-1650”, Section on aprons, translated by Katherine Barich.

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