The Meaning and History of Gloves
In the modern era, it’s hard to think of gloves as anything other than a cold-weather accessory. But throughout most of history, gloves had a significant role in society. More than just an accessory, gloves were a symbol of social status, customs, and traditions. They also allow us to reflect of certain societal aspects that are no longer the norm.
An Early History of Gloves
Gloves are an article of clothing that has been worn since man has been recording history. When archeologists explored the tomb of Tutankhamen, they even found the remnants of a pair of gloves belonging to the ancient pharaoh. Early people mostly wore gloves purely for protection. Harsh living and working conditions meant that hand coverings crafted from animal skins and fur were an essential tools of survival and self-preservation.
As time wore on, gloves became somewhat of a symbolic item. Texts from the Middle Ages recount Popes and other clergy members wearing gloves made of white silk and adorned with delicate pearls. Gloves made of opulent and exquisite fabric eventually became an accessory worn only by royalty or other high-ranking members of society. It was around the 14th century that gloves became a commonplace article of clothing for both men and women of all social classes.
Gloves in the Victorian Era
Gloves & Social Status
By the 1800s, gloves had long been worn for practical purposes. It was during the 17th century, however, that gloves became far more than just a simple accessory in Western society. Victorians were obsessed with social status. Because of this, clothes and accessories worn by both Victorian men and women were carefully chosen to display a “message” about social status in the public realm. Gloves became important objects that hinted at the wearer’s wealth.
Wealthy Victorian women often had a household full of servants to complete chores and other forms of labor. Wearing tight-fitting corsets, billowing skirts, and other impractical articles of clothing sent a message to her peers that she didn’t need to concern herself with hard work of any kind. They also kept their pale, soft, and delicate hands covered by gloves to maintain their unsullied appearance. During this era, gloves weren’t just a way to signify social status – they were also a way to hide it. Working-class women could cover their rough, tan hands with gloves to suggest they were of a higher social class than they actually were.
Proper Glove Etiquette
In an era that was incredibly concerned with etiquette, even the simple act of wearing gloves came with a long list of “rules” that proper women were meant to follow. Victorian etiquette books advised women to “never go out [of the house] without gloves.” Her gloves, however, had to be on her hands before stepping food outside. Buttoning one’s gloves or tying one’s bonnet strings after leaving the house was simply unacceptable. Modest women were expected to be fully covered before entering the public realm.
Delicate gloves were worn year-round, no matter the weather. They were especially important and formal events like balls or dinner parties. There was special etiquette that revolved around women wearing gloves during meals. Gloves were expected to be taken off during dinner but could not be removed before being seated at the table. One’s gloves were to be placed gently in her lap and then covered by her napkin. After the final course had concluded, women dipped their fingers in a bowl of water, dried them, and then put her gloves back on. The act of putting her gloves back on after dinner, however, had to be done gracefully and under the table so as to not draw unnecessary attention to the act.
It wasn’t just women who were expected to adhere to these strict etiquette rules – men also had to act carefully when it came to wearing gloves. Because women were expected to wear white or ivory gloves during hot summer months, men had to follow suit. After all, if a man were to take a woman’s gloved hand on a hot summer day, the perspiration on his hands could ruin the delicate material of her gloves. If his gloves were made of a dark leather or fabric, he also had to be careful before holding a woman’s hand, as the dark color could soil the pristine nature of her gloves. With that said, a gloved hand was more appropriate than touching a woman with a cold, ungloved hand.
Gloves, Health, & Safety
While gloves were worn for modesty and to symbolize social status, there was another important reason that gloves were an essential accessory during the 1800s. Contagious diseases were rampant in Victorian society, and many feared catching a grave illness when they ventured into public. Gloves acted as a barrier between the outside world and the body. Upper-class women would frequently wash their hands and wear gloves to maintain a healthy lifestyle and reduce the spread of germs within their households.
Gloves During the 20th Century
1900s & 1910s Gloves
While some strict, Victorian ideals had disappeared from society during the Edwardian era, gloves were still a popular fashion accessory. Proper women often wore gloves to social events, especially women in middle and upper-class society. During the day, women wore leather or suede gloves that extended past their forearms. These gloves also typically featured rows of dainty buttons that extended from the wrist to beyond the elbow. Gloves during this time period were also expected to be properly tailored. Wearing ill-fitting gloves indicated you belonged in a lower class in society.
In the evenings, Edwardian women wore lavish gloves made of silk, suede, or leather. More formal in design, these evening gloves often extended all the way to a woman’s bicep. These gloves also featured decorative embroidery or embellishments. While they were typically white, ivory, gray, or another light neutral shade, it wasn’t uncommon for women to wear gloves that featured various pastel tones, like light green or lavender.
1920s Flapper Gloves
World War I made it difficult to purchase gloves made of authentic leather or suede. This paired with changing attitudes in society made the practice of wearing gloves to decline slightly. Although they were no longer expected articles of clothing, Flappers and other fashionable women during the Roaring Twenties still wore dainty gloves to accessorize their outfits. These gloves were often made from a sheer lace or light cotton, and were worn for special daytime occasions like travelling, garden parties, or weddings.
The Art Deco period meant that gloves became more stylish and statement-making than ever before. Often, they were decorated with lavish designs, embroidery, or geometric embellishments to match the clothing that was popular during the time. As the decade wore on, a new kind of glove became popular – The Gauntlet. This type of glove featured a large cuff that folded over at the wrist. The invention of elastic also made the use of buttons irrelevant. Now, gloves could be easily slipped on and off without having to undo any complicated fasteners.
1930s Formal Gloves
Gloves became less popular in the 1930s due to changing trends. With that said they were still expected during very formal occasions. Elegant leather gloves were popular for balls, operas, and other important society events. The gauntlet-style glove also became a bit more feminine in design. The bold cuffs began to feature softer scalloped edges, and their designs often included intricate embroidered accents. Because gloves were less popular, women owned only a few pairs. For that reason, gloves were almost exclusively ivory, brown, or black, so that they could complement a wider variety of outfits.
World War II made gloves a luxury item that most women couldn’t justify owning. During wartime, women became more active members of society and often didn’t concern themselves with wearing such an impractical accessory at the workplace. Upscale women, however, would still wear gloves during the day to make their outfits even more elegant. Typically, elbow-length fabric gloves were worn with the cuffs scrunched down to the wrist for a fashion-forward rushed effect. Women during the 1940s would also accessorize gowns with long white gloves to make their eveningwear ensembles look more lavish.
Women’s clothing became more fashionable and lady-like after the end of World War II. This also made gloves come back into style. It was once again commonplace to see women wearing wrist or forearm-length gloves in public during the day. Even the always fashionable Jackie Kennedy would accessorize her crisp outfits with gloves when making public appearances.
Gloves went out of style during most of the 1960s. The “Mod” trend, however, made for somewhat of a resurgence. When they wanted to make a statement, women would wear bright, colorful gloves to match their bright, colorful dresses. Any gloves that were worn during this time were made from synthetic fabrics rather than leather, lace, or other fine materials.
Gloves in the Modern Era
Today, wearing gloves as anything other than outerwear is extremely rare. We have once again reverted back to a time where hand-coverings are almost exclusively utilitarian and functional in design. In some sections of society, young debutants or brides are expected to wear long, white gloves in accordance to old-fashioned traditions. Outside of these very specific events, however, wearing a formal glove is very, very uncommon.