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Gloves

Updated on March 9, 2010

A glove is a covering for the hand, tailored to fit each finger separately. A hand covering that leaves the fingers bare or encloses them in a single compartment is called a mitten or mitt. The finest leather gloves are of kid. Other leathers are lamb, sheep, doe, buck, calf, and pig. Gloves may also be made of fur, knitted or woven silk, wool, cotton, and synthetics, or of such materials as rubber, plastic, and asbestos. They may afford protection, indicate social status, or contribute to a fashionable appearance.

Photo by Petr Kurecka
Photo by Petr Kurecka

Early Times

In cold climates early man probably wore fur mittens for warmth, as Eskimos still do. The earliest known gloves, of about 1350 B.C., were found in the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen. They were made of linen and linen and wool. The Greeks and Romans considered gloves effeminate, but hunters, foresters, and peasants in northern Europe wore thick mittens for protection.

In the early Middle Ages gloves became part of a bishop's liturgical costume, bestowed at his consecration and intended to preserve his hands at Mass from contact with impurities before beginning the Eucharistic rite. Such gloves, of linen or silk, were usually decorated with embroidery, gems, or disks enamelled with scenes of the Crucifixion. Rulers and nobles also came to wear ornamented gloves as status symbols, especially at the coronation of Holy Roman emperors and the investiture of French kings. Ladies and gentlemen wore tasselled leather gauntlets for falconry, and armored knights wore gauntlets of chain mail, later of metal plate. A knight's glove was used as a pledge of honor in a law case or a challenge to combat. A lady's glove was often a love token fixed to a knight's helm in a tournament.

In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, first gauntlets and then long gloves, of kid, silk, or velvet were fashionable for both sexes. Their cuffs were richly embroidered with colors or gold or trimmed with ribbons and fringe or lace. The most elegant gloves were scented.

Later Times

From the late 17th century through the late 20th century, men's gloves were generally short and plain. Except for brief periods in the 19th century when yellow or violet was favored, colors were usually neutral. Women's silk and kid gloves from the late 17th to the early 19th century were generally long, to meet short sleeves, and better fitting than earlier ones had been. They were often pearl grey, pale pink, purple, or of bright colors, such as yellow, to set off the white dresses of the early 19th century. Pale kid gloves were sometimes painted with colored scenes or designs in the 18th century. In the early 19th century, classical themes were printed on them in black.

During the Victorian period, women's day gloves, usually decoratively stitched, were at first short but became longer after 1865. Early Victorian evening gloves were short, of white or sometimes pastel kid, with lace or ribbon trim and delicate floral embroidery. Long gloves returned in the 1860's, with tassels, in brilliant colors made possible by the new chemical dyes. Gloves became pale again in the 1870's and in the 1880's extended above the elbow, where they remained for formal wear through the mid-20th century.

In keeping with the general informality of dress in the late 20th century, gloves for fashionable day or evening dress are worn less and less frequently. Gloves for practical purposes abound, however. Rubber gloves are worn by surgeons to avoid contamination, by electrical workers to act as insulation, and by housewives as protection against household cleansers. Asbestos gloves protect the wearer from burns, lead-impregnated gloves from atomic radiation, and plastic-coated gloves from chemicals and oils.

Manufacture

For centuries gloves were painstakingly cut and stitched or knit by hand. A guild of glovemakers existed in France from the 12th century. During the Renaissance, the most elegant gloves were made in Spain but soon were imitated in France and Italy. In 1834, Xavier Jouvin, a glovemaker of Grenoble, France, invented the punch press, which simultaneously cut out six gloves, thus making cheap mass production possible. The invention of the sewing machine in 1845 completely revolutionized glove-making. The use of cheap cotton and synthetic materials also helped to put gloves within the reach of the majority of the population.

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