Over time, shifts in production methods and patterns of consumption in relation to gloves have been paralleled by a shift in their primary role. Today, gloves may broadly be considered as a form of protective hand covering for use in cold weather. Within the context of fashion, gloves belong to the family of small accessories that includes fans, scarves, and hats. They are closely related to the mitten and muff. For several centuries gloves were highly symbolic garments, often worn for reasons other than protection. This changing conception illustrates the varied roles gloves have played within the discourse of fashion.
The Origin of Gloves
Gloves have been made since ancient times. Over the course of history gloves have served both utilitarian and decorative functions. Early cave paintings depict people wearing primitive leather gloves, and gloves have also been recovered in the remains of ancient Egyptian tombs. In both instances gloves came to be out of a need for protection. Similarly, ancient Greek and Roman peoples wore gloves for protection in battle and agricultural work. Gloves have also been an indicator of social status and power. Traditionally, the clergy wore gloves while performing the sacraments. In this case they communicated the power of the church and its representatives.
The development of the European gloving industry did not begin until the tenth century, and it was not until the eleventh century that it extended throughout Britain. Originally, the use of gloves within Britain was confined to the realm of warfare. Gloves were typically made of local deer, sheep, or imported kidskins. Knights and military officials wore protective hand coverings fashioned out of linked iron. Women did not generally include gloves as part of their dress until the Reformation period. The widespread use of gloves as fashion accessories did not commence until the early seventeenth century.
During the seventeenth century, fashion and status-oriented motivations for wearing gloves emerged. Within Britain the use of gloves was primarily confined to the elite social classes and signified the wearer’s wealth and superior rank. Glove styles of the period were designed to complement the highly decorative and patterned styles of clothing that were in vogue. These gloves were not gender specific, and the styles worn by both sexes were almost identical in terms of shape, decoration, and color. They were typically made from deer, sheep, and kidskins in a natural color palette. As the century progressed, however, gloves became decorative garments in their own right. Gloves adorned with elaborate gold and silver silken embroideries, often bejeweled with precious stones, became popular, as did the attachment of a patterned and fringed gauntlet at the wrist. The seventeenth century also witnessed the birth of fabric and knitted gloves. However, fabric gloves did not communicate the social status and prestige that highly decorated leather gloves and gauntlets did. These gloves were elegant, fashionable, and expensive objects of desire that often served little or no utilitarian or protective function.
This new perspective brought with it new conventions concerning the trade of gloves. The newly established connection between gloves and the social status of their wearers led to the practice of offering gloves as symbolic gifts and even methods of payment. Within courts of law judges and official dignitaries were often presented with gloves not only as payment for services but also as symbols confirming the power of the State. The value of the gifts was commonly increased by inserting gold coins into the body of the glove, or by perfuming the material.
New behaviors emerged concerning the correct etiquette for wearing and removing gloves. It was not considered appropriate, for instance, to be wearing gloves when accepting objects or in the presence of a judge. Institutions such as the courts and the church continued to regard gloves as symbolic garments. Indeed, gloves were not only worn by the clergy, but became an integral element of what was considered proper church dress.
The latter years of the seventeenth century saw the emergence of distinct men’s and women’s styles. Elbow-length versions in different colors became popular for women while men opted for more basic styles. It was at this time that the practice of wearing gloves began to extend to the middle classes as the range of materials and styles increased. The distinction between men’s and women’s gloves, the proliferation of styles, and their broadening social appeal continued into the eighteenth century.
As a consequence of technical advances and new forms of fashionable dress, the consumption of fabric and knitted gloves began to increase during the eighteenth century. The lower cost of these materials meant that gloves soon became accessible to a wider section of the populace. Changing fashions, along with the high cost of elaborate gauntlet styles, led to the emergence of shorter, wrist-length gloves. Such styles were often constructed of finely embroidered and printed leather or multicolored woven cloth. Gloves of this type were designed to complement the popular fashions of long ruffled or lace-trimmed sleeves.
Toward the end of the eighteenth century, gloves no longer formed an essential part of the male wardrobe. Men’s use of gloves was becoming confined to sporting pursuits. Gloves were thus employed only while riding, hunting, or driving, and styles emerged which catered specifically to these activities.
The beginning of the nineteenth century saw men return to wearing gloves for reasons other than sporting. The established preference for simple, wrist-length styles for both sexes continued throughout the early nineteenth century. Popular choices for men and women were generally constructed of pale-colored leather or white silk and cotton. The continued preference for short gloves was a consequence of the prevailing trend in clothing for long ruffled or lace-trimmed sleeves.
A clear dichotomy began to appear by the end of the century between the forms of gender-defined dress. As clothing became more elaborate for women and simplified for men, so too did the respective designs of their gloves. For women, gloves once again emerged as highly decorative fashion accessories, and specific styles were designated for day and evening wear. These were constructed either of white silk and knitted fibers or of pale-colored embroidered and finely printed leather. For men, styles became increasingly plain and well fitting. These gloves were designed to properly accompany the fine tailoring that came to dominate male dress during the early decades of the nineteenth century. For day gloves, yellow emerged as a popular color choice for men along with black, brown, and navy blue. White gloves remained de rigueur for evening wear.
By the end of the century, it became fashionable to wear tightly fitting gloves that were molded to the specific contours of the hand. Wrist-length gloves that fastened with buttons came to be worn by both sexes. For women, buttoned elbow-length evening gloves became available in a range of color and fabric variations.
The nineteenth century saw the development of social codes that prescribed the types of gloves to be worn during particular day and evening engagements. To appear in public without gloves in situations that called for glove wearing was to invite censure or ridicule. Maintaining one’s gloves was also very important, as soiled gloves were reflective of poor etiquette. As pale-colored gloves were popular at the time, people had to purchase their gloves in multiple quantities and carry spare pairs with them on outings should one pair become soiled.
In sharp contrast to the preceding century, the twentieth century was marked by the gradual demise in the social importance of gloves. Although technological advancements made in glove production meant that greater varieties could now be made, the significant social upheaval following World War I profoundly affected the way they were consumed. After World War II, previously held standards of social etiquette concerning the wearing of gloves no longer seemed appropriate. Since clothing was rationed and became rather standardized in design, highly fashionable gloves were largely deemed unnecessary. As a consequence, gloves reverted to a more utilitarian role as garments to be used for protection against cold weather. Practical, durable styles were produced for both sexes in conservative color choices of black, brown, and navy. Leather versions were often lined with wool and fur for extra warmth.
Throughout the 1950s, however, something of a glove renaissance occurred within the realm of female fashionable dress. Styles gradually emerged that were constructed from synthetic fibers, such as satin and netting, in a wide range of colors. Women began to wear gloves that either sharply contrasted or closely matched the color of their clothing, jewelry, and other small accessories. This trend was short lived, and by the 1960s the use of gloves became increasingly less frequent, except as protection against cold weather or for work, such as gardening.
The fact that gloves have been widely preserved within museum collections indicates our appreciation of the important role gloves have played throughout history. Gloves were once highly symbolic garments used to convey important social messages. Since the twentieth century, however, this has changed. Within the contemporary fashion discourse gloves assume a limited role and function. Their status has been reduced to utility and they are worn only as means of protection. It is highly unlikely that gloves will ever assume the symbolic significance they once had in the past.
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Norton-Kyshe, J. W. The Law and Customs Relating to Gloves. London: Stevens and Haynes, 1901.