IN A RECENT EXHIBITION, “Apropos Aprons,” celebrating this seemingly demure item of apparel down through the ages, the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute offered a kind of archaeology of “modesty.” In fact, one could easily imagine an accompanying catalogue essay by someone the likes of Michel Foucault, unraveling notions of propriety in dress, freedom from conceit or vanity, scrupulous chastity of thought, speech, and conduct. In short, we’re talking about all the attributes of modesty, which (it doesn’t just so happen) is also a 17th-century word for apron.

All those attributes of modesty come to intersect with the ideology of the “feminine” and its supposed virtues—compliance, restraint, and meekness—by the 18th century, producing a stereotype of womanhood that has a hold on us even today. In a way, the apron symbolizes that juncture. And yet, the history of this article of clothing

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