History in the details: Gloves

History in the details: Gloves

A brief history by costume and picture expert Jayne Shrimpton

Jayne Shrimpton, Professional dress historian and picture specialist

Jayne Shrimpton

Professional dress historian and picture specialist


Ever since our prehistoric ancestors first devised basic bag-like hand-coverings, gloves have performed many practical, social, ceremonial and symbolic functions and also offer scope for fashionable display. As tokens of supremacy and distinction, gloves and gauntlets (with extended cuffs) were used by rulers and warriors throughout the ancient world. After the Norman Conquest, royalty, the higher clergy and other dignitaries wore gloves as badges of status. Richly embroidered and jewelled gloves were part of the insignia of medieval emperors and kings. Traditionally bestowed at coronation ceremonies, this ritual was observed in 1953 when Elizabeth II was invested with the symbols of monarchy: a stole, golden Robe Royal, orb, sceptre, ring, and glove presented by the Worshipful Company of Glovers.

Leather gauntlets worn with chain mail or armour provided defensive protection in medieval warfare during hand-to-hand combat. By the 1200s gloves were also viewed as battle tokens: a knight would fling a gauntlet down at the feet of an adversary, as a challenge to his integrity and invitation to duel, hence the term ‘throwing down the gauntlet.’ Any free man could use a glove or gauntlet to settle a personal dispute, the last gauntlet challenges reported during the late-1700s. From the 13th century aristocratic ladies wore long gloves as stylish accessories and gloves became more widely worn by the Elizabethan era: ornate fringed and spangled gloves for the wealthy and plain leather versions for ordinary folk. Gloves were often presented at key events: they made ideal wedding favours, while black-trimmed gloves were given to mourners and servants for wear at funerals. Luxury gloves, desirable worldly gifts, were exchanged at Christmas and New Year. Queen Elizabeth I received perfumed gloves from her courtiers and in turn bestowed her favour by placing a glove in a nobleman’s hat at a tilt or tournament, an emblem that identified him as the Queen’s Champion.

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Gloves of leather, silk, cotton, lace and other materials grew increasingly fashionable and during the 1700s and 1800s many people worked in the industry, especially in Somerset, Dorset and Worcester. Sizing, fit and finish were all-important for fine leather gloves and in the 1830s a new system of accurate sizing and pattern-cutting was patented, widely adopted during the 1850s and forming a prototype for today’s methods. Broadly, gloves provided warmth in winter, protection from the sun’s unwelcome rays in summer, and were deemed essential for formal dress, reinforcing gentility and social status, and obligatory for court wear. As respectable accessories, gloves remained important until at least the mid-1900s, while conversely many working people have worn gloves signifying their occupation, from the driving gauntlets worn by chauffeurs and white ‘Berlin’ gloves used by footmen waiting at table, to protective half-gloves like the thatcher’s palm and shoemaker’s hand-leather.

This painting after N Hilliard depicts George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland in his role as Queen’s Champion at the Tilt of 1590, wearing Queen Elizabeth I’s glove as a hat favour
This painting after N Hilliard depicts George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland in his role as Queen’s Champion at the Tilt of 1590, wearing Queen Elizabeth I’s glove as a hat favour
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Black fabric fingerless gloves or mittens are displayed in this fashion plate of 1830 Jayne Shrimpton
This family photograph taken at a Brisbane wedding, 1940s, confirms the continuing importance of smart gloves at formal events
This family photograph taken at a Brisbane wedding, 1940s, confirms the continuing importance of smart gloves at formal events

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