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CultureFirst person

In praise of pinnies

By May 17, 2020July 19th, 2020No Comments

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Taryn de Vere has been a fan of charity shops since she was a small child. Here, she examines the subversive artistry of pinnies.

When I was seven, I lived in a small town populated by people I knew or was related to. I roamed freely, running from my house to the caravan park, where I would stop in at the shop and spend 10 cents on a bag of sweets. Then I would run to the Town Hall, where my great aunt ran the charity shop. I would peruse the treasures then find a cool place to sit in among the hems of organza ballgowns and satin coats. Our town was founded on gold, and the wives of previous years had plenty of money to spend in the big smoke.


I sat on the dusty floor and breathed in the faint scents of perfume and dancehalls, excitement and regret. When my eye alighted on a shiny fabric I would daydream about the life of the person who had worn it. My love affair with charity shops began then.

The history and mystery of second-hand shops was and is intoxicating to me.

Charity shops have not always been good for me. I’m an avid collector and I love a bargain so I have to limit my trips to charity shops, or I spend all my money on old things. There have been times where rice has been the only food I could afford after I over-spent in a charity shop. I love second-hand stores so much that my most recurring (and exciting) dream involves me finding a charity shop full of vintage clothes that are really cheap.

Charity shopping has also taught me a huge amount, about history, culture, fabrics and quality. I love the items from long ago not just for their beauty, but for the quality, quirkiness and history.

I can’t remember when I first bought a vintage pinny, a pinafore if we’re being formal, but I think I was about 19. I had grown up around women who wore them, both my grannies owned several, and I’ve bought many similar to the ones they owned in the years since. Pinnies are an extra joy find for me as, unlike other clothing, most aprons are unique, homemade and handmade.

The owner often designed and created them herself, out of scraps from curtains, sheets and other bits of fabric. My collection spans pinnies from the early 1900s to the late 1990s. Each pinny is imprinted with the energy of the creator. I have one made around 1910, it is almost sheer white lawn, hand stitched with tiny pink ribbon rosettes. I imagine a young romantic woman with a poetic heart, lovingly hand sewing using tiny, precise stitches. How pretty she would have looked in the pinny, her long red plait hanging down the side of her body as she delicately pulled apart herbs from her garden. 

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Another favourite is a pink paisley print, probably from the late 1930s or early 1940s. It is faded and worn right on the belly area, as if the woman who wore it wiped her wet hands there over and over. I see her, brown hair held back in a snood, her work-hardened hands kneading bread. What pleasure did she take in wearing a colourful pinny? Was it the most colourful clothing she owned?

The pinnies I own were worn by women and women only. They were only ever worn in the house, for the most part only seen by the people who knew the woman best. This makes the care and detail of the handmade pinnies even more special to me. Women spent hours embroidering flowers and cross-stitching designs on their aprons, and they were doing it for themselves. Not to meet societal expectations of women’s appearances, but to express themselves through colour, craft and artistry. I believe that the pinnies bought them joy.

The colours of some of the aprons are so startling, combinations of electric blue and yellow, or pink and orange – the colours are not those we imagine housewives wearing, and yet this is what they chose when they knew no one would be watching or judging them. There’s something beautiful about that. 


The creators of the aprons expressed parts of their identity through their pinnies, parts that they were not allowed or discouraged from expressing outside of their own homes. One of my grandmothers had beautiful colourful pinnies, completely unappreciated by her husband and four sons – she made them for herself and herself only. These aprons of years past were declarations of independence and self-worth by women who were oppressed and suppressed in most other parts of their lives. I see pinnies not as symbols of domesticity but as subversive feminist art, a colourful and exuberant ‘fuck you’ to patriarchal expectations: “I’ll be who I want to be in my own damn house you bastards!” 

I live in a different world from the one the women who made my pinnies lived in. I can express myself any number of ways, and I have the freedom to not care what someone thinks if I wear an electric blue and hot pink outfit. But to honour the women whose art I now own, I sometimes wear their pinnies during the day, as outerwear. I layer skirts and add a matching or a contrasting apron. And sometimes I sit with my collection and imagine the lives the women who wore them lead, just like I did when I was seven.

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