Pinned afore, or in the front, the pinafore was a ubiquitous child’s garment from the 1700s to as late as the early 20th century. The pinafore was designed on the lines of an adult woman’s full front apron, and served essentially the same purpose: to prevent the girl’s dress from getting dirty.
A pinafore was usually made in white or a pastel color, of calico or other cotton materials. A Sunday pinafore might have been made from organdy, a sheer lawn fabric that is dressier than regular cotton. The pinafore had a bodice and skirt that usually came to within a few inches of the bottom hem of the dress. The bodice varied, depending on who made the pinafore. Some were more like a little backless dress, while others had a more apron-like front, but with ruffles over the shoulders.
During the age when little girls wore pinafores, gentle detergents were not available. Most detergents had a lye base, which was hard on buttons. Therefore, pinafores were pinned rather than buttoned, and were worn to protect the dress. Dresses were not laundered frequently because of the button issue, and the pinafore and apron were indispensable in keeping spots and stains away.
The pinafore did change somewhat with the years, and a Sunday pinafore might well have had crossed straps that pinned in the back, along with a tie waist, making it look more like an apron. Most little girls were taught to sew when pinafores were in style, and after samplers and quilts, making a doll’s pinafore, then one for themselves, were early sewing projects.
Many collector’s dolls that have a Victorian theme often include outfits with a pinafore. These usually have metal snaps instead of pins, but they are a good example of what the pinafore looked like. Some girls’ dress patterns also have what are called pinafores, but they are often more of a jumper dress, meant to be worn over a blouse rather than a full dress.
The pinafore has mostly gone out of fashion, as little girls wear shorts and T-shirts for play clothes, but it was once an important item in their wardrobes.