What to Wear When: Throwing Down the Gauntlet

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As the coronavirus runs rampant throughout our world forcing an unprecedented lock-down, we thought it would be a fitting moment to explore the history of gloves.  Their rich story is entwined with that of civilization and they have become a compulsory accessory in our everyday lives. When this dark period passes, and it will, we expect that the popularity of gloves will be making a strong comeback for both good health and fashion.

Gloves existed in the Stone Age, as our ancestors devised a protective layer to keep their hands warm and protected from the ferocious world they occupied.  Hunting and gathering was a dangerous occupation. These were likely more like crudely faceted mittens, or they kept their sleeves long to cover their hands.

But then as now, protection was their raison d’etre — to fend off frigid temperatures, to resist disease and to avoid getting clobbered!

In the early Middle Ages, Gauntlets, or cuffed gloves, made of metal or hardened leather, were worn by warriors riding into battle. Knights would challenge their adversaries to a duel by “Throwing Down the Gauntlet” challenging the offending scoundrel to a duel. Crusaders traveling to the Middle East were fascinated to discover falconry, trekking back to their homelands sporting the birds of prey. This may have been the origin of the gauntlet to Europe and Britain.

Members of the Royal Family began decorating their gloves with their crests and jewels and many Royals were buried wearing their precious possessions.

And the Papacy, closely aligned to the Nobility, followed suit.

Pope John XXII.

We reached out to our favorite expert on everything fashion, Valerie Steele, Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology Director and Chief Curator, and her assistant Coleen Hill, Curator of Costumes and Accessories. Valerie not only possesses impressive credentials and brilliant brain-firing power, but she is always willing to share her vast knowledge. Here, she reveals her extraordinary world of artistry, conservancy and exposé for us to discover from the Museum FIT Collection. These interesting shapes harken back to 13th century.

Chanel, ca. 1931

Valerie informed us that gloves were indeed difficult to craft, thus were very pricey. “As long ago as Ancient Egypt, gloves were an important social symbol. Only the wealthy could afford the luxury, lending an air of privilege and exclusivity to those who did. From the 13th century to the middle of 1960, gloves functioned as a social status in elegant society.”

Did Eliza fool them?

The more highly decorated, the higher position in society was perceived. And, of course, by the Victorian era perfumed gloves would be highly desirable as daily bathing had not yet come into fashion. Gloves were more than an accessory but symbols of love and seduction for both the suitor and the pursued. Young women would impart one glove to her paramour as a love token, still warm with her touch. They even had their own language.

And speaking of love, Valerie noted, “No glove no love — the skin of unborn lambs were used for condoms before rubber was invented. But rather than protecting women from pregnancy, they were worn to guard against venereal disease.” Ahem.

Gloves could symbolize a woman’s position in life or help to hide it. Women of the working class might wear them to hide her less than creamy hands. Who can forget the scene from Gone with the Wind, where the dashing Captain Butler discovers our crafty heroine’s subterfuge.

“Drop the moonlight and magnolias, Scarlett!”

Gloves also reinforced the social mores of modesty that were firmly in place in the Victorian era. Glimpses of skin were kept to a bare minimum as it were. Women wore shorter gloves by day with long sleeved dresses, and 12- to 20-button-long gloves were worn in the evening. Fortunately most of the damsels were assisted by a lady’s maid to help with the task.

The 1920s came roaring and with it the Flapper Girls. These Thoroughly Modern Millies’s hitched up hemlines, bobbed locks, embraced the Jazz Age, and ditched the gloves in an attempt to break free of traditional constricting norms. They smoked and drank, caroused into the wee hours, and might very well have taken a tumble into bed — egads!

During World War II, gloves were thought to be a frivolous accessory as women went to work for the war effort.

There was a resurgence in the ’50s when after the war ultra femine styles ruled.

I attended a girl’s school where the official motto was Vigalate et Orate, or Watch and Pray (“Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Mark 46:21 ). In actuality the dictum that ruled was “Hats, Heels and Gloves!” And as teenage girls, our mission was certainly to enter into temptation especially when traveling in our “hats, heels and gloves!”

By the 1970s, gloves were almost entirely gone for daywear, except at the above mentioned school. Yet elegant women still clung to the tradition, especially for weddings, galas and other highly social events. As Hilary is isolating in Newport, she found some wonderful family photos.

L. to r.: Hilary’s mother Nicole Limbocker and grandmother, Bunny duPont; Nicole and her father, Nicholas duPont.

Since we predict a resurgence in gloves when we come out of social isolation, we thought we would send along a few that caught our eye.

Hilary’s picks range from simple and chic to high glamour:  “When I think to the last time I wore gloves as an accessory — not for protection against the weather or a virus — it was for my daughters’ debutante parties. They were long white leather and very glamorous … a far cry from the rubber ones we now wear. It was fun to search for different glove options and I found this assortment. From the classic white, to camo, and the statement making zebra print by Gucci …  there is a pair to complement every look.”

Dents Angelle Leather, $120 / Dents Sede Bow, $42 / Gucci Zebra Print Stretch, $490 / Dents Cotton Glove, $23 / UR Leather Moto, $88.

With my hands and nails in crisis mode from so much hand washing, I did a little glove shopping to disguise my distressed digits.

Of course Gucci does not disappoint with their iconic style. A worthy investment. Wear during the day, with a crisp khaki shirt dress.

Gucci Golden Knit Gloves, $499

These black lace are extremely seductive. Just the thing to pair with your Little Black Dress.

Gucci Black Tulle Gloves, $670

Or these from Cornelia James in London …

Eliza Lace Glove, $134

And for summer sophistication, pair these with a white sleeveless sheath.

Dries Van Noten Lacroix Polka-Dot, $325

And when the dog days arrive, Etsy has lots of Vintage Crocheted Gloves,
or you can have a pair custom made in many different shades.

Crocheted Gloves, $70

A kiss on the hand can be quite Continental …

Manokhi Long Fitted Gloves, $324.

And of course for White Tie, Affairs of State and Debutante Balls, the preferred gloves is white kid. I like these 16-button from Soloclasse.

Solocasse White Kid Gloves, $160 (SALE)

The length is measured in “buttons” or inches above the wrist.  Thus, a 16 button glove is 16” above the wrist. Most gloves today have buttons only at the wrist, or none at all, but the unit of measurement continues.

For a bit of diversion, we invite you to read our article, What to Wear to a Debutant Ball.

Are fashion gloves a thing of the past or a wave of the future? While that remains to be seen, there is no doubt that we will be wearing hand protection for the foreseeable future. Please stay safe and informed and try to enjoy this gift of time with your family and friends.

In the spirit of keeping things light, we leave you with one of the more apropos messages we have received …

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