Gloves were invented for utilitarian purposes—to protect hands during an uncomfortable task, to keep them clean during meals, and to keep fingers warm. But being associated with cleanliness and protection, gloves quickly took on more symbolic meanings when worn by royalty and church officials. In the Middle Ages, priests wore elaborate gloves for ceremonies, while knights wore more practical leather gauntlets for falconry and riding.
In 12th-century Europe, gloves became an important part of proper dress. When greeting an authority, one was expected to remove the glove on one's right hand as a sign of respect. Gloves could also symbolize a pledge, be flung down as a challenge to a dual, and given by a lady as a sign of love or affection to a suitor.
During the Renaissance, women would don luxurious, intricately embroidered and perfumed gloves made of silk, linen, or kid leather. Queen Elizabeth I, it is said, was particularly vain about her delicate and shapely hands, and would flaunt them by taking gloves on and off or posing in gloved hands while she addressed her subjects. During her 16th-century reign, she accrued more than 2,000 pairs of gloves of every style imaginable—embroidered, jeweled, and fringed.
Thanks, in part, to her obsession, gloves became the height of fashion and London became the center of the glove trade, where craftsmen would journey to learn the secrets of glove-making.
But the French, too, loved gloves, particularly Napoleon Bonaparte and his Empress Josephine. Napoleon had at least 240 pairs of gloves. After the 19th century French Revolution, Josephine introduced a new look, the short-sleeved empire-waist gown paired with long, over-the-elbow “opera gloves.” Putting on a pair of 16-button opera-length gloves might take a lady as long as 30 minutes, employing glove stretchers, powder, button hooks, and a maid.
During Victorian times, gloves and fingerless mitts were a vital part of a well-dressed woman’s wardrobe. Gloves were always worn in public, and special gloves were donned for weddings and funerals. It was in this century that the French finally overshadowed the British in glove-making when master glover Xavier Jouvin devised a way to make universally proportioned and sized gloves.
The tradition of wearing gloves out and about carried well into the 20th century—they were an essential part of Christian Dior’s New Look of the 1950s. Thanks to Hollywood, the image of Audrey Hepburn in three-quarter length gloves in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” reinforced the glove as the icon of elegance, while Marilyn Monroe, in hot pink opera gloves and a strapless gown in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” made gloves sexy. However, during the 1970s, gloves largely lost their mystique and fell out of favor as a part of formal dress.