TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT November 1989

ICONS AT LARGE

Modesty

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 extends back to prehistoric cultures, in which it was invested in complex and overlapping ways with ceremonial and sexual significance. It is this history that Beth Alberty, the curator of “Apropos Aprons,” mined. Breaking a code of silence, the aprons held their own on the wall of the museum like paintings or shields, with very few displayed conventionally on mannequins, allowing them to speak for themselves rather than merely functioning as accessories. Brushing aside their standard O.E.D. definition/disguise as “articles of dress . . . worn in front of the body to protect the clothing from dirt,” the curator from the start identified the apron’s fundamental function as a covering for the genitals, as protection against the “polluting” power of genitalia—and thus as a marking out of sexual difference. Although their original function has been masked by “civilizing” mechanisms, the point subtly made here is that they still resonate as representations of that difference.

Some of the earliest forms of lower body covering, such as loincloths, girdles, and cache-sexes, were featured in the exhibition as original versions of the apron form. Although not all these early examples are gender specific, those that were designated as worn by women seem to reinforce or, at least, represent her traditionally inferior social status. The development of sex roles in tribal cultures has been explored by Margaret Mead and Claude Lévi-Strauss, among others. For our purposes, it is necessary to note that the “dangerous” and “unclean” qualities attributed to women’s genitals in tribal cultures,especially during menstruation and childbirth, frequently required transformative and purifying rituals that involved the use of aprons or apronlike wrapped skirts. For example, the Bogolanfini cloths of the Bamana tribe in Mali are believed to absorb the nyama, the negative spiritual power, of the prepubescent girl as it is released through clitoridectomy. Thus “aprons” are worn during the excision ritual and throughout the four-week healing period during which the young girl receives instruction in behavior proper to a mature woman of the tribe, which amounts to nothing less than complete obedience to its authority. Afterwards, the cloths, as both symbols and containers of the negative spirit or nyama (rebelliousness?), which has now in a sense been broken, ore given to the female elders of the tribe for safekeeping. And in the tribal culture of the Ndebele, changes in apron styles indicate progressions from the status of puberty to marriage and childbirth.

Variations on the practice of marking out social and sexual roles, particularly women’s, seem to have worked well enough to have survived through centuries of “civilization” into the urban cultures of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. For example, from the 1830s to the ’70s in England and America, young girls changed from a pinafore to a smaller apron at about the time they reached puberty; and in Victorian England, a mourning costume that included an apron was worn to designate widowhood. Such an overt display of female reproductive and sexual availability offers itself quite neatly to the ideology of what Klaus Theweleit (citing Foucault) has called monogamization, which supported the internment of the unmarried, as well as the unemployed, during the 17th century because they were seen as threats to the stability of society. As the bourgeois nuclear family became the unit that best represented the power of the absolute state, any uncontrolled sexuality—but particularly female—became especially dangerous.

The apron entered the fashionable dress of European women from peasant costume at the beginning of the 16th century, just about the time that this monogamization process began. While the popularity of this new accessory has been viewed as one of the manifestations of the rising standard of living among the middle classes—those who wore aprons as ornament surely did not need them for work—it seems just as likely that their power emanated from the folklore and rituals of the peasant traditions from which they came, traditions rich not only in representations of age and marital status, but also in superstitious belief. Folk sayings such as “to catch a man, a woman waits for the opportunity to make him dry his hands on her apron,” or “the girl who burns a hole in her apron will soon be married,” were possibly even endorsed by the local clergy and aristocracy. And, with the goals of the monogamization process in mind, sayings such as “a woman may insure a harmonious marriage by wiping the floor of the chapel with a corner of her apron,” or “sick children may get better when wrapped in the apron of a bride,” are clear reflections of a social order interested in circumscribing a woman’s behavior.

Perhaps there have been some cultures, in Europe and elsewhere, in which atavistic beliefs in the dark forces of female sexuality have generated some balance of power between the sexes. If the period from the Enlightenment to the Victorian era was the one in which the “horrors” of the feminine were transformed into their most domesticated form, the exhibition made evident, through juxtaposition, some equally powerful contradictions. Although the apron conceals and cleanses the female genitals, it also calls attention to them, reminding us that they have not disappeared, have not been totally subsumed by male representations. One apron in particular stands out: a white bib-type, American circa 1850, ornamented with red, white, and blue shield like emblems of the “stars and stripes,” and worn, according to family history, by Lucy C. Leavens as part of a costume meant to represent the “Goddess of Liberty.” Here, two forms of the idealized feminine—goddess of freedom and individual will, and angel (of the house, of course)—unwittingly subvert each other to simultaneously expose and mock the desires that produce and sustain both stereotypes. Yet by including aprons worn in many cultures and by both genders, the curator refused to isolate female experience, thus rejecting the standard view that women’s lives are a part of some other, less significant, more modest realm. In doing so, she found one way to give the materials of feminine culture, and consequently the feminine itself, “something else to be,” to quote Toni Morrison, if only, for now, through their contradictions.

Maureen Connor is a sculptor who lives in New York, and who teaches the history of clothing.