Gloves, running the ‘gauntlet’ of history

Whether for fashion, health, or work, hand coverings can tell us a lot about the past.

Thursday, July 9, 2020,
By Jennifer Barger
In this 1947 image, a woman examines a selection of colorful gloves. Popular for centuries as ...

In this 1947 image, a woman examines a selection of colorful gloves. Popular for centuries as a status symbol, leisure gloves finally met their downfall in the latter half of the 20th century. In the COVID-19 era, errand gloves may indicate renewed interest in germ-protecting hand coverings.

Photograph by B. Anthony Stewart, Nat Geo Image Collection

The ads for pink women’s “errand gloves” started popping up on my Internet feed in April. They sounded like a throwback accessory from the Mad Men era, when women slipped on white, wrist-length pairs to head to tea or, presumably, to perform tasks outside the home, like hat-shopping or secretarial work.

But it turns out, errand gloves are the 2020 invention of Echo Designs, a New York City scarf and glove company that’s been around since 1923. “After the coronavirus hit, I kept seeing trash cans full of plastic gloves at the supermarket,” says Echo’s CEO and president, Steven Roberts. “I thought, ‘How do we respond to this anxiety? Can we make a lightweight, washable glove?’”

He had a bunch of cotton-polyester pairs whipped up at a factory in Asia. Although Roberts is quick to remind people that “we’re not saying they’re a medical solution, they’re just an added layer of psychological comfort,” Echo has sold thousands of the pairs over the past three months.

COVID-19 may be bringing a mini revival of chic gloves, even in warm weather. But for millennia humans have been slipping five-fingered coverings over their hands for warmth, fashion, or protection—and sometimes, an intriguing fistful of all three. And gloves have played an outsized role in everything from English royal rituals to early 20th-century medicine.

From the start, a sign of status

Cave paintings suggest that humans wore simple mittens, possibly knitted, as far back as the Ice Age. But the oldest existing gloves, made sometime between 1343 and 1323 B.C., are a snappy linen pair that ties at the wrist, found in King Tutankhamun’s Egyptian tomb in 1922. “It looks as though he used them when he rode in his chariot,” says Michael Redwood, a leather and glove expert and the author of Gloves and Glove-Making. “He’d use them to hold the reins, which seems almost symbolic. It’s an early example of how gloves were important to royalty, the church, and the legal system. Tut embodied all three.”

Early gloves could be knitted at home (the poor or working class) or sewn from cloth or leather (the rich). But even for the upper crust, gloves had utilitarian purposes. In the Odyssey, Homer mentions characters donning them to avoid brambles. European knights put on past-the-wrist metal gauntlets for protection (and to look intimidating).

Gloves became more common in medieval Europe. But since they took more resources and skills to craft than basic mittens (all those fingers and seams), they tended to be reserved for heavy-duty workwear (chain-mail ones for war, heavy leather ones for blacksmithing) or for the fashion and ceremonial needs of the wealthy.

Starting in A.D. 973 with King Edgar the Peaceful, every coronation of an English monarch has included a ritual where the sovereign’s right-hand glove is removed by a court official, who then places a coronation ring on the king or queen’s fourth finger. When Queen Elizabeth I ascended the throne in 1559, her gloves were white suede with silver fringe. The snowy leather pair Elizabeth II wore for her June 2, 1953, crowning didn’t look much different—simply more expertly constructed and monogrammed with a gold-thread “ER II.”

(Related: See how centuries of pandemics have shaped the British monarchy.)

In early Europe, gloves were often given out as gifts to signify land transference or to bestow favouritism. Knights would literally throw down a gauntlet as a challenge to fight, a tradition that continued in spirit in later centuries when gentlemen tossed down a glove to provoke a duel.

Indeed, by Elizabeth I’s time, upper-class European women and men would scarcely appear in public without gloves, as a way to both signal their status and adhere to fashion. “Gloves were complicated to make, and very much luxury items,” says Valerie Steele, a fashion historian and director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “Like in all of Titian’s 16th-century portraits of the wealthy, they’re wearing gloves or holding them.” In the Catholic church, priests wore gloves to signify purity.

Gallery: gloves in action around the world

In courts around the continent, jewelled gauntlets were popular among both sexes, and, says Steele, “they were often scented, in an attempt to ward off the diseases people believed circulated in the miasma.” These so-called “sweet” gloves were infused with herbs and spices, which also helped to mask the foul odours of the leather, which was tanned with animal excrement. Italian-born French queen Catherine de’ Medici popularised sweet-smelling gloves at the French court in the 16th century and was even accused of using one to poison a Spanish royal. The gossip, though never proven, continued for decades and inspired the murder-by-mitts plot of Alexandre Dumas’ 1845 novel, La Reine Margot.

An industry rises

During the 18th and 19th centuries, growing prosperity in both Europe and the Americas led to a demand for more gloves in the service of everything from horseback riding to regal events. “Wearing gloves became a sign that you were middle or upper class, because you could afford to cover your hands and keep them from coarsening in the sun,” says Steele. “The implication was you didn’t need to be doing anything.”

In the 19th century, a well-to-do person might change their gloves several times a day, donning a shorter carriage-driving pair for an afternoon ride or, for women, being buttoned into above-the-elbow opera gloves for a party. Made from silk, cotton, or leather (kid goat was prized), many gloves were white—“you’d have to buy a lot of them and constantly replace them,” says Steele.

“It starts to speak to women emerging from their homes, too,” says University of York cultural historian Susan J. Vincent. “There were more public, participatory things for them to do—gardening, driving, climbing up glaciers, and they needed clothes to go out into those milieus.” A complex etiquette and symbolism began to emerge—removing a glove to shake hands signified trust among men, women would only remove theirs to eat. And coverings were so ubiquitous that they inspired their own accessories: glove boxes—long, rectangular storage containers—and knitting needle–like hooks used to button up longer pairs.

(Related: Why do graduates wear those square hats?)

And, since so much of the populace was wearing them, whole towns and communities sprang up around the glove trade, at first in Italy and Spain and later in England and the Americas. In England, they were organised into often rowdy “glovers’ guilds,” including the Worshipful Company of Glovers of London (founded in 1349 and still active in royal state occasions). In the U.S., Gloversville, New York, produced some 90 percent of the world’s gloves (and much of the U.S.’s tanned leather) until the mid-20th century.

Tradespeople—men who worked in factories, women who usually sewed at home—became adept at stitching ever-better-fitting fingers and cutting leather on a bias so gloves could stretch yet retain their shape. Most followed a deceptively uncomplicated looking, four-piece pattern first documented in the French 1764 Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert that still often hangs in factories today. “Nothing has changed much in how you make gloves in the last couple hundred years,” says Redwood. “There are more elastic materials in some cases, but the pattern remains nearly the same. It seems simple but getting it to fit your hand is difficult.”

A medical marvel

Tradespeople had long thrown on gauntlets for work: past-the-elbow, fire-resistant gloves for working the forge, tough leather pairs for gardening. But the concept of doctors donning gloves for surgeries or examinations didn’t happen until 1894. And it started off as a love story.

In this 2018 photo, workers produce medical gloves at a factory in Luannan County, China, which manufactures more than 13 billion medical gloves a year for global export.

Photograph by Yang Shiyao, Xinhua/eyevine/R​edux

William Stewart Halstead, the first surgeon-in-chief at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital, was taken with his scrub nurse, Caroline Hampton. Her hands were breaking out due to the use of carbolic acid and other harsh antiseptics in the hospital. So, Halstead had Goodyear Rubber Works craft her a custom pair of latex gloves. They cured her problem, and other medical professional took to wearing them since the gloves also increased their dexterity. Hampton and Halstead ended up getting married. (Their relationship–and Halstead’s accomplished life—inspired The Knick, a 2014 TV drama series starring Clive Owen.)

Making a comeback?

Gloves were still de rigueur at the turn of the 20th century, both for men, who found that driving models helped them better grip the wheels of the newfangled horseless carriages, and for women, who could still be seen buttoned into the long, tight gloves of the last century. Strangely, while gloves were certainly common during the Flu Pandemic of 1918 and 1919, they weren’t perceived as a barrier to infection. “Unlike COVID, which can pass on surfaces, people were thinking the ‘Spanish flu’ was all about coughs and sneezes,” says Redwood.

(Related: Learn how some cities “flattened the curve” during the 1918 Spanish Flu.)

By the 1920s, the pandemic had subsided and a new optimism—and freedom—came into style with knee-grazing women’s flapper dresses and more casual sportswear for men. “I think gloves got shorter and less formal, just like women’s bobbed hair and shorter skirts,” says Vincent. Still, dressy gloves weren’t dead yet: Women continued to wear them in social and work settings well into the 1960s. “Women even put them on when they typed, which must have been so expensive, since the ink would ruin them,” says Redwood.

The seismic social and style changes that the late ’60s ushered in finally killed the idea that everyone had to glove up in polite society, relegating gloves mostly to winter utility or garden sheds. “It was around the time that women stopped wearing hats,” says FIT’s Steele. “There was this general throwing aside of all the bourgeois conventions that you had to wear a hat or tie to be respectable. People were just dressing as they pleased.”

Still, in today’s world of masks and hand sanitiser, the glove might just be making a comeback. “I certainly think fashion people won’t want to keep wearing those ugly purple latex gloves,” says Steele. “If you could make some little black gloves, there would probably be a market for them.”

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