The apron is less function, more fun these days: Little halfsies with glowing prints and rickrack, loop-de-loop trim, ruffles or contrasting bows. Aprons no longer must be ripped from the waist as the doorbell rings.

"The hostesses in the '50s were hip to that," says Joyce Cheney, author of "Aprons: Icons of the American Home." While Dad was having cocktails with the guests, Mom was cooking in the kitchen. (This was before all those bulk-price mini-quiches at Costco. And women's lib.) While stirring, simmering and sauteing she'd wear her practical apron, says Cheney. Then she'd slip into her hostess version to serve the food and mingle.

These retro babes had a different apron to go with every dress. Ahh, it was a simpler time, when women frequently received matching aprons as gifts. "They were clearly fashion accessories," says Cheney. "And that's what they are now."

Like the boutonniere on a prom date, the apron signifies: I'm the important one, your dinner party cruise director.

"Maybe you eat takeout -- whatever -- six nights a week," says Cheney. "But on the seventh maybe you have people over and have something really fancy -- you've gotta have an outfit."

Nowadays, she adds, some aprons "are made out of material and at prices that you wouldn't want anywhere near the kitchen."

-- Janelle Erlichman Diamond

Half apron with coral pleats and folkloric swirls ($22), at anthropologie.com.Cidell handmade black and white reversible apron by local designer Renee Samuels ($44), at Nana, 1534 U St. NW.Left, Organza apron with big flowers ($38), at anthropologie.com.

Right, Bellini apron in cherry print by local designers Meghann Shinners and Joanna Ramani ($35), at Fornash Designs, 3222 M St. NW or meghannandjo.com.