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Pinafores may be worn by girls as a decorative garment and by both girls and women as a protective apron. A related term is pinafore dress, which is British English for what in American English is known as a jumper dress, i.e. a sleeveless dress intended to be worn over a top or blouse. A key difference between a pinafore and a jumper dress is that the pinafore is open in the back. In informal British usage however, a pinafore dress is sometimes referred to as simply a pinafore, which can lead to confusion.
The name reflects that the pinafore was formerly pinned (pin) to the front (afore) of a dress. The pinafore had no buttons, was simply "pinned on the front" which led to the term "pinafore."
Pinafores are often confused with smocks. Some languages do not differentiate between these different garments. The pinafore differs from a smock in that it does not have sleeves and there is no back to the bodice. Smocks have both sleeves and a full bodice, both front and back.
A pinafore is a full apron with two holes for the arms that is tied or buttoned in the back, usually just below the neck. Pinafores have complete front shaped over shoulder while aprons usually have no bib, or only a smaller one. A child's garment to wear at school or for play would be a pinafore.
Further confusion results from some foreign languages, which, unlike English, do not have a distinctive term for the pinafore. In German, for example, there is no precise term for pinafore. Schürze means "apron" and thus Kinderschürze is used to describe a child's apron or pinafore (in contrast to the German word "Kittelschürze", which refers to an adult garment, typically worn by older women for housework tasks and cleaning).
In modern times, the term "pinny" or "pinnie" has taken another meaning in sports wear, namely a double-sided short apron, often made of mesh, used to differentiate teams. This usage is chiefly British, with some usage in Canada and the United States. This type of pinny is also known as a scrimmage vest.
The pinafore was a type of apron that was pinned over the dress and easily removed for washing. Buttons were frequently damaged with lye cleaning products, which was one reason why dresses were not laundered very often.
- H.M.S. Pinafore, a comic opera by Gilbert and Sullivan, uses the word in its title as a comical name for a warship.
- Alice, the eponymous heroine of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, wore a pinafore over her dress in John Tenniel's illustrations.
- A song and album title by the English art rock group Stackridge is called Pinafore Days.
- Swedish author Astrid Lindgren, known for the Pippi Longstocking series, created a character, Madicken, who is often portrayed as wearing a pinafore.
- Granville, the errand boy of the British TV series Open All Hours, frequently complains about his having to wear a pinny and his being unable to acquire a modern look because of the pinny.
- United Kingdom television programme Sugar Rush describes one of the main characters Nathan, as "Half man, Half pinny."