On my birthday last May, I received a mysterious priority package from an unrecognized California address. I don't know anyone in L.A. who would be sending me a birthday present.
Normally, opening a package sheds more light on its origins. Not this package. In fact, the packages' contents further puzzled me. What I pulled out was the kitschiest apron I had ever seen.
My first reaction: Adorable! I love it.
My second reaction: Wait...from who?! Why?
My best friend in Wisconsin had personally-selected the exact design from the popular website Etsy.com, which serves as a massive marketplace for artist/handmade products from around the world.
The note on the package's insides explained it all: "I wanted to get you something you would never get for yourself!"
My friend, Meagan, knows me well. I have to admit I had seen a lot of these retro-designed, contour-cut aprons prior to being a proud owner and I had secretly admired and fantasized about wearing one. I have been quite happy this past year wearing my orange with polka-dot trimmed, green bird-patterned apron. The apron holds a power to somehow make one feel mischievous and giddy.
That is....until this weekend. Saturday I read an article in the Denver Post that deeply disturbed my love for this apron. The article's title says it all: "Sassy, sexy aprons shrug off sexism, tie on a trend."
Shrug off sexism?....Um, NO.
Hold the phone. How is this an acceptable title for a news publication? And, were the contents of this article, which completely ignored the issue of sexism, really written in 2010?
Now, I am not actually freaking out about this supposed apron craze. I think they are cute...obviously, and I think they can be enjoyed for what they are in a non-sexist way. To be totally honest, my morning discovery of this article happened in a very ironic manner:
I woke up and felt like having a Saturday slow morning, meaning I was about to whip up a recipe I concocted of "good for you" muffins. But, what did I do first? I put on my apron. To make matters worse, earlier in the week I had made Giada De Laurentiis' Lemon-Ricotta Cookies (they're delicious by the way) in that same apron!
After cleaning up the kitchen, I sat down to read the day's headlines. This is when I had my feminist identity crisis. As I read the article, I was asking myself, "Am I perpetuating the idea that female domesticity is our only contribution to society and therefore our only value?!"
To understand why this was so dramatic you have to read the article. I clicked on it because I thought it was just going to be about the trend of these aprons. As a trend-watcher and apron-owner I expecting it to be a lovely morning read. Instead, the article seemed oblivious to the sexism it was supporting.
Some beefs I have with it:
"If I bought this apron, I would never leave the kitchen."
The article doesn't utilize that quote to later refute it. No. It is used to support the idea that this never leaving the kitchen thing would be positive.
"...retro-style aprons channel pin-up queens as well as iconic TV housewives. Some are featured on models who wear nothing but a saucy apron and a pair of pumps."
Excuse me? Did you just write that in the article as something for our society to celebrate?
The author writes,
"...aprons are riding a new wave of retro chic that also includes cupcakes, casseroles, cocktails, canning and gardening."
Later, describing one specific designer's goods,
"her aprons match up with toaster covers, potholders, placemats and curtains."
And here is an even greater kicker at the end about one particular woman's apron:
"Her boyfriend bought one for her. It's ruffled and has a big button on the left hip where she can hang a dishrag."
Yes. It went there. It said that. It didn't point out anything potentially alarming with this picture.
Maybe I am reading too far into this, but I can't help but wonder if this new "nostalgia" trend has anything to do with the economic recession. Let's take a crash course look at the development of domesticity in the past century.
The domestication of women in the U.S. has strong historical roots in the Cold War era. Once all the men returned from WWII, the women were basically forced back into their housewife roles. Even though they had been the American workforce and professionals during the war, it was now considered their "patriotic duty" to return within the walls of the home and make employment space available to the men. This was a direct trickle-down from the United States' foreign policy issues of containment and suspicion of "subversive acts."
In the 1960s and 1970s, second-wave feminism pushed back against this policy of domestic containment. What resulted was bra-burning (and apron-burning) feminism.
The 1980s saw a backlash against feminism and it almost became a dirty word. However, "new wave feminism" or sometimes called "third-wave feminism" is very much a real thing today. Once I understood what new feminism was in college, I realized I was one.
With a shaky job market (or at least the perception of one), people seem happy to just exist within their current circumstances. That's fine...it is a bit of self-preservation, or survival mentality. But, it makes me wonder if this retro kick is in a way similar to the cultural reactions of the 1940s, 50s, and early 60s.
This compelled me to contact a professor I had in my undergraduate history program. Jodi-Vandenberg-Daves teaches history and women's studies courses at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. After reading the article, she confirmed a lot of my initial thoughts and feelings.
"I've got no problem with creative, fun clothing, and I've got no problem with cooking and all the creativity and fun that go with that. In an era when work can threaten to take over your life (unlike the era when women were told they shouldn't be interested in anything beyond their kitchens, kids, husbands and vacuum cleaners, etc.), I find cooking rewarding," Vadenberg-Daves says.
But, she also sees some concerns with this article as she continues,
"Where I get a little concerned is the marketing of women's domestic servitude, especially as linked to sex. The part in the article that jumped out at me was the reference to marketing of these aprons with models wearing only the aprons and pumps. Sounds like an old Playboy image to me, and we just keep recycling these."
My personal crisis only lasted about two minutes. I quickly assessed myself, my motives, why I enjoy the apron, who had given it to me, and I realized I was ok. I am not sacrificing my ideals by wearing the apron. The fact that it came from a like-minded, feisty feminist herself helped calm my brief freak out.
The Wikipedia definition of third-wave feminism explains why this is such a quandary for me and our generation as a whole. One part in particular says a lot: "The third wave embraces contradictions and conflict, and accommodates diversity and change."
Relief in understanding. My form of feminism accepts contradictions...like the apron.
Unfortunately, that does not appear to be the case with the women in the article, and I fear that may be the case with a lot of people who jump on the domestic kickback trend.
The reclaiming of derogatory terms is another characteristic of new feminism. That could be applied to concepts and ideas, too, which would make this a fun and empowering trend. That is the way I had been interpreting it up to the point when I read this article and realized there may be something else going on under the surface for some women.
For me, I will continue to prance about in my apron whenever I choose. I will bake for baking's therapeutic sake whenever I want and for whomever I want because I enjoy doing it for others as an act of friendship/love, not because it is a duty or expectation. I will do so as I embrace the contradiction I represent...so long as I am always aware that is a small piece of me, not all of me.
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