What happened to... Home Futures

The apron

To mark the Home Futures exhibition, guest authors take stock of some of the changes that the contemporary domestic interior has endured in the last two decades. What happened to the TV, the telephone, the bed? Explore more of these essays in the official exhibition catalogue.

The man apron is now officially a ‘thing’. Fashioned out of hardwearing fabric such as canvas or jean, the man apron is as much a badge of hipster culture and the creative classes as coffee or a beard. Shoreditch-based shop Labour and Wait offers one of the best-known models, a bib apron made of Cotton Duck fabric, brass eyelets and herringbone-tape ties. On the company’s website, a male model wears the apron outdoors and holds a pair of shears, as if to confirm the virility of his work. Yet Labour and Wait makes clear that its aprons are intended not only for workshop and garden but for the domestic kitchen as well.

While the rise of the man apron seems to announce the entry of a new generation of men into the kitchen, the question remains: on what terms? Do they come as conquering chef-heroes, armed with a battery of Japanese knives and stainless-steel appliances? Or do they come prepared to shoulder a more equal share of the housework, which is still disproportionately carried by women?

Rather than treating the man apron as an accurate index of real shifts in housework, it might be more productive to think of it in representational terms. When men are shown at home in aprons, it is typically to dramatize a profound threat or crisis in male identity. Even though over the decades men have begun to shoulder more of the home burden, the supposed lack of male domestic skills has remained the subject of a stream of satirical Hollywood films, notably Mr. Mom (1983), in which a bewildered Michael Keaton – clad in a droopy, dirty apron – struggles to look after his children when his wife returns to corporate life. Mr. Mom riffs of the notion that somehow men are not biologically suited to nurture, cook or clean, at once exposing the stereotype while restating it.

When set against such bumbling portrayals, the man apron phenomenon begins to seem much more purposeful and positive. Even if the reality might take some time to catch up, there is something radical about the man apron’s assertion of male domestic competence – so at odds with Mr. Mom – a signal that the new generation of men are prepared to roll up their sleeves and get to work in the home, the threat to their masculinity now warded of by tough, canvas folds.

—Barbara Penner

Related exhibition

Home Futures

Explore today’s home through the prism of yesterday’s imagination. Are we living in the way that pioneering architects and designers throughout the 20th century predicted, or has our idea of home proved resistant to real change?

Find out more

Home Futures

Alongside original essays by leading voices in the field, this richly illustrated book features more than 200 colour images, organised in six thematic sections exploring privacy, the smart home, compact living, self-sufficiency, nomadic lifestyles and the idea of the home as an idyllic landscape.