Bib-Aprons in the 18th Century

Last updated: Jan 4, 2024

In English contexts, bib-aprons were a sign of youth; they were primarily worn by girls, but also appeared on maidservants. Grown women in Europe also wore bibbed aprons, but this seems to have been less common in England. However, there are examples of black silk aprons worn both in England and in Europe.

Bib-aprons on girls and young women

English literature seems to associate wearing a bib-apron with youth, as a symbol of girlhood:

  • “We had ſeveral innocent ſtories that happen’d in bib and apron time; and I being a ſort of a wagg, adviſed the ladies to make haſt and marry, in order to ſupply their old maſter with a great many ſcholars.” Letters Sent to the Tatler and Spectator, 1725
  • “I will hope, Madam, that you are above ſuch Weakneſſes, which a Miſs in her Bib and Apron might bluſh for.” The Virgin’s Nosegay, 1744
  • “LORD what’s come to my Mother!
        That ev’ry Day more than other,
    My true Age ſhe would ſmother,
        And ſays I'm not in my Teens.
    Tho’ my Sampler I have ſown through,
    My Bib and Apron outgrown too.”
    Song 340 in The Thrush, 1749
  • “And then to have the full pleaſure of mortifying Mrs. Conqueſt too, that's always holding her noſe over me, as if I was not fit to be out of my bib and apron.” The Lady’s Last Stake, 1780
  • “Enter Jenny in a bib and apron, with a pricked ſong in one hand, and a large piece of bread and butter in the other … You — my mother will bring me a tall huge huſband home next week; and methinks I long for a tall huge huſband; and I am to leave off my bib and apron too.” The Boarding School, 1788

Following are examples of such aprons on girls and very young women:

English maidservants wearing bibbed aprons

There is some indication that English maids wore bibs and aprons as well. Whether this is merely for practicality or likewise as a relative indication of youth is up for some debate. I have not found many specifically English examples of this yet. (Servants and other household workers also wear bibbed aprons elsewhere in Europe.)

  • A City Shower by Edward Penny, c. 1764
  • The Love Letter
  • A laundress in Camp in Hyde Park, London, 1785
  • “On the following day Eliza’s filthy rags were all taken off, and ſhe was dreſſed in a tidy brown ſtuff gown, a nice clean round-eared cap, and a little coloured bib and apron; and ſhe was ordered, if any perſon aſked her name, to ſay it was Biddy Bullen, and that ſhe was niece to the woman who employed her.” Tales of the hermitage, 1798
  • Mrs Maltby by Isaac Robert Cruikshank

Bib-aprons on adult women elsewhere in Europe

The general sense that bibbed aprons were restricted to the very young seems to have been limited to England; other adult European women wore this style of apron more often.

These exist as finer aprons for wealthy women:

There are also extant cotton-print bib-aprons with floral patterns. These resemble the floral-patterned bib-aprons in other illustrations of working-class women, such as the maid in the Concert in an Interior or #15 & #21 in a collection of watercolors c. 1775.

  • Nationalmuseum IN-8676, a cotton apron printed with a red pattern, c. 1740-1760
  • Colonial Williamsburg 1952-67, floral block-printed cotton with the addition of pencil blue, probably France, c. 1770-1785; “The block printed fabric of this apron is of medium quality, and would have been affordable by women of the middling sorts. Aprons were not just for cleanliness and protection while working. Many eighteenth-century aprons were fashionable accessories, made of fine cotton or silk and decorated with needlework or printing. Because of its washable but decorative fabric, this apron probably was both accessory and protection. The bib was pinned in place to the wearer’s gown using straight pins, as safety pins were not invented until the nineteenth century.”
  • Colonial Williamsburg 1971-1543, block-printed cotton, France, c. 1780. “Red and blue blockprinted cotton with two repeating chinoiserie scenes between wavy stripes with red branches intertwining.”

Bib-aprons also appear in illustrations and paintings of working-class women:

Black silk bib-aprons

Black silk aprons even appear on well-to-do girls and adult women, both in England and elsewhere in Europe. The Margaret Hunter Millinery Shop at Colonial Williamsburg re-created this style; see Useful Yet Elegant: Black Silk Aprons, c.1770. (Mara adjusts her hat shows another re-creation of this style.)

These are also referenced in Anna Green Winslow’s diary (January 4 & 17 in 1772) and in a letter that Alice Lee Shippen sent to her daughter Nancy on November 8, 1777.