March 22, 2022 /

Home Clothes, Fig Leaves: an Apron’s Dubious Authority

Written by Tara Menon


“Everyone is a worker,” declares Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day? In my first encounter with the book, I was six, sitting on the orange carpeted library floor, face to face with three ginger cats in protective garments. One, supposedly the male cat, wore a bright white butcher’s apron. Another, identical, but somehow feminized, wore a pleated, starched white pinafore and held a broom. The third, smaller but otherwise indistinguishable in its features, wore a large bib and held in its paws an exaggerated knife and fork. They stood erect in a row, like the subjects of an ethnographic photograph from the early twentieth century.

I wondered what work the child cat did. I still remembered being an infant, wearing a large bib emblazoned with a prancing Bambi and the cryptic phrase I could now read but surely could not then—“I’m a little deer from Wisconsin.” “Everyone is a worker”—that ominous phrase implied that the work of the child, its dharma, was to eat and to spill, to be a child. In this world, work constituted all being, and yet its marker was some sort of cover, a protection for the real self.

The anonymizing force of work clothes has always held a great attraction for me—an attraction shot through with a frisson of fear. The apron, like the fig leaf, the kaupinam, the breechcloth or the hazmat suit, masks the body. That is its primary role, to protect and to neutralize the specificity of the human self, a specificity that is perhaps inherently vulnerable. You wear the apron to show that you have a purpose, and that purpose is work. There’s none of that fuzziness around the question of goals or intentions that so many of us feel with our clothes–this garb is serious. A garment like the apron reduces its wearer to a single function–it makes possible a retreat into functionalization. The apron wearer does rather than is.

Years later, a book I carried around with me but barely ever read wore as its cover a painting by the French-Hungarian artist Simon Hantaï. I learned recently that that painting is a print he made by dipping his mother’s apron in a vat of ink. He sought to link his work—the glorified work of the famous male artist—to hers—forgotten, familial, beloved. In a photograph that inspired this apron-bound turn of his work, his mother, young, stares into the future, her waist wrapped in a traditionally folded, grid-patterned apron.

My mother never had apron strings to which any of us could be tied. Everyone did domestic work in our household. Like most middle class South Asian families, we also had domestic workers. All of us had separate clothes for home and for the outside world. The concept of an exotic garment that protected your regular clothes—clothes which, if you were a picture book animal you somehow never changed—took on in my mind an altogether ritual force. Home clothes were a far less glamorous thing. They were often old clothes whose origins in the dusty past didn’t even bear investigation: an older school friend’s former Snoopy pajamas. An orange smock printed with frisky cows in frilly dresses and mysterious phrase “Uffa che noia…”–the provenance of this strange garment was probably the roadside sale of sweatshop rejects from Tirupur that lined the pavements of Kodaikanal. Years later, I learned that I spent some part of my days at home in clothes that exclaimed in Italian, “Oh, what tedium!!”

Someone who has always understood the apron as sign–and the sign as fundamentally absurd–is Rei Kawakubo, with the iconic apron skirts and dresses of Comme des garcons. Peasants, workers–people who did “real” work, now rendered figments of our imagination by a new world order. Fabrics whose comfort served the purpose of efficiency–a comfort now handed over to that changeable god, luxury. Kawakubo’s aprons are apotropaic, a charming and superstitious joke. Perhaps our nostalgia for the apron is a nostalgia for a kind of work that is less and less present in our world. Or at least a nostalgia for the image of that work. The vast majority of the employed world do not hold the stable, respectable jobs of Richard Scarry’s world. I was wondering what the workers who made my home clothes wore in Tirupur. The sweatshop worker does not often have a uniform. The sweatshop worker is often a child, a migrant, a person whose identity and whose livelihood are even less secure than those of the uniformed workers of our imagination.

When, more than a decade ago, I went to college in the Midwestern US and discovered the sneeze-inducing charms of thrift store shopping, one of the first categories of clothes that caught my attention was that most frivolous item, the hostess apron. These flimsy, filmy half aprons—in organdy, lace, satin, silk, cotton lawn—glimmered like cobwebs in forgotten corners. The curated feminine virtue they represented—work attenuated to the point of absurdity, work as elegant sign, as fig-leaf and proud flag, work that could never be dirty work, a kind of immaculate, domestic sprezzatura bound to the wasp waists of fifties American “homemakers”—was out of vogue, except on Halloween. I loved these wisps of cloth but never bought them, reluctant to participate in the new cult of irony that dominated my generation’s relation to clothes. Irony was the only mode in which I could conceivably wear these frilly fragments over my faded kurtas and jeans. Their past was not my own.

In recent years, the apron has made a sudden non-frivolous entry into our domestic sphere. With my mother’s sudden illness, my father, my brother and I realized for the first time how much she was the kingpin of our household, how much the domestic tasks that seemed to us equitably shared in fact rested on her surprisingly small shoulders. We have a chequered, plastic-coated apron in the kitchen. The role of home clothes has somehow attenuated as we’ve aged. Time at home is no longer time for play, for carefree, careless leisure. My father, my brother and I compete, half-jokingly, for this badge of work. Whoever gets to it first has mastery over the kitchen and its daily tasks. This is a race for control of course–over the menu (there’s a genuine joy to learning how to make olan or polenta or tomato chutney in its entirety instead of piecemeal, in the form of delegated tasks). The winner of this race has a respectable but comical mask for his or her domestic incompetence. It is easier, of course, to turn oneself into a caricature, to stylize one’s confusion, than to admit the difficulties of new tasks in changing worlds. We are Richard Scarry’s animals–incongruous but serious. And day by day, we find we wear the apron better.