Glove Story: How to Start an Inexpensive Costume Collection
Gloves and hats go hand in hand (forgive the pun) and are an interesting collectible unto themselves. Once a practical and stylish fashion necessity, gloves fell out of fashion two generations ago, marking them as a novelty artefact with many vintage costume collectors.
Thrift store shoppers are only beginning to appreciate this personal item of apparel for its variety of workmanship, fabrication and design.
To a fashion historian labels are always interesting; finding a pair with its original tag attached means that your discovery is new old stock and probably in very nice condition. Don’t forget that gloves often came with their own accessories; glove boxes, glove stretchers, and those elegant dinner rings are wonderfully collectible too.
From early fashion gloves of delicate net, lace, silk, satin, and taffeta to 20th century doeskin, mink, and rayon examples there is something for everyone, including couture examples from the likes of Elsa Schiaparelli, Christian Dior, and Jeanne Lanvin.
Why are gloves an easy and inexpensive entrée into the world of antique costume collecting? Not only does their small size make for easy storage and display, but iconic examples emblematic of a particular historic period, can stand in for an entire costume which would be more difficult to obtain, conserve, or exhibit.
A Brief History
Over the centuries, gloves have served as a practical covering for the hands, providing a barrier against excessive cold, heat, and wind, as well as bacteria and viruses. They lost part of their protective purpose as 20th-century vaccines and antibiotics became available but maintain their sartorial intent to this day.
Children’s leather gloves were eventually replaced with less expensive hand-knit or machine- made woolen mittens, more suitable for outdoor winter activities. Hand crocheted lace varieties also fell out of fashion, with cotton varieties standing in at graduations, religious observances, and weddings.
Throughout the Victorian era, gloves were so ubiquitous that even dolls wore them, and glove boxes were incorporated into furniture design with hinged containers flanking the mirrors of dressers and dressing tables. Miniature versions of leather gloves styled for women were produced for children by famous glovers such as the Fownes™ company.
Gloves were originally the domain of gentlemen, but once the fairer sex adopted them as an adornment for the hands, they completely feminized them, going so far in Victorian times as to develop a method of communication with the fashionable accessory—a secret language similar to that of the fan.
In January, 1887, The New York Times advised young maidens how to send love messages to a suitor in full view of their chaperone. Observing that “certain old fogies go to balls and social gatherings merely to observe the conduct of young people,” the newspaper advised that you could beckon a friend to follow you into the next room by striking both gloves against your left arm.
Twisting the fingers around the thumb of a glove communicated, “Be on your guard against my governor,” while a careful smoothing of the gloves meant, “I love you still.”
Someone even invented glove semaphore using a careful and elaborate knotting of the fringe that often trimmed a pair of young girl’s gloves. Each knot stood in for a single letter of the alphabet. Not surprisingly, this system did not catch on.
What did persist were the many social imperatives around the wearing of gloves. When the following verse—“If from ‘glove’ you take the letter ‘G’, then ‘glove’ is ‘love’ and that I send to thee”—accompanied a pair of gloves given as a Valentine’s gift, the recipient was free to receive them as she would a marriage proposal. When a popular young girl—most Victorian brides were married by the time they were 18—received such a gift from several suitors, at Easter, she would wear the gloves from the gentleman of her choice Easter to return the sentiment.
Over time, this sentiment morphed into the giving of gloves at Valentine’s Day as a love token. Later, when the giving and receiving of paper gloves replaced the real thing for February 14th observances, New Year’s Day became the customary time of year to exchange gifts of gloves.
Perhaps the one surviving glove tradition in America is the debutante glove, an accessory de rigeur with maidens coming out to society at a debutante ball. This custom, derived from the English tradition of young ladies being presented to the British Court, came to America in 1748 when several aristocratic Philadelphia families held the first Dancing Assemble to formally introduce girls of marriageable age to suitors of a similar social standing.
Traditionally, debutantes wore over-the-elbow length gloves made of white kid leather with a 3-button wrist opening, known as a mousquetaire through which they might extract their hand without removing the glove.
“No display of period costume, with the exception of undergarments, is complete without gloves.”
~ Donna Young, Costume Collector
The popular 19th-century American novelist Louisa May Alcott found how much gloves can reveal about a person so intriguing that she built a story, The Baron’s Gloves, around this very notion. When a pair of monogrammed gloves, scented with violets and adorned with a coat-of-arms, drops from a balcony above, Amy, the protagonist, examines them in an effort to understand who might have lost or tossed them. Discovering a little hole fretted by a ring on the third finger, she deduces, “handsome hands wore these; I would like to see the man.”
Collectors and costumers are equally curious about the gloves that they stumble across today at flea markets, antique stores, and Grandmother’s attic. Where were the gloves worn? What costumes did they accessorize? To whom did they belong?
Glove collecting is not new. According to Linda Baumgarten in her 2002 book, What Clothes Reveal, Horace Walpole, the fourth Earl of Orford—an 18th-century author, antiquarian, and politician—collected old costume to help him understand the people of the past. His collection boasted embroidered gloves that once belonged to King James I.
Gloves made of lace, net, satin, silk, taffeta, and velvet soiled quickly and could just as easily be damaged through laundering as through snags and tears, so relatively few of these have survived. Even sturdier leather and fur examples tend to dry and crack over time, and many were discarded and replaced rather than preserved. A special glove of this type is worth collecting even if it is without a mate.
In the 20th century, gloves saw many style changes and innovations—most notably the use of synthetic materials. The finest examples can carry famous designer labels. Their monetary value varies. Nice examples can be found for between $5 and $100.
Many factors affect the deterioration of textiles over time including exposure to light, heat, humidity, soil, chemicals, animals and pests. Gloves are especially susceptible to damage because they may be exposed to the oils secreted by human hands. Children’s gloves, in particular, often sacrifice themselves during play or when protecting little hands from injury.
While it is possible to remove dirt and stains from period silks, linens, cottons, and other fabrics, and to restore cracked and dried leathers to a softer condition, it is best to consult a professional conservator before attempting to launder or repair an antique glove. The same rule applies to any vintage textile as unskilled cleaning may further damage aged costume artefacts.
Store gloves flat between sheets of acid-free tissue paper and follow museum standards for storage and display.
The Mobile Millinery Museum & Costume Archive is home to several hundred pair of 19th & 20th century gloves, a few of which I teamed with hats for my book 1,000 Hats. I also profiled an adorable pair of miniature leather gloves in Darlings of Dress; Children’s Costume 1880 to 1920 but I’ve withheld the rest for a future work on gloves alone.
Any glove afficionados out there? Tell me what inspired you to start collecting.