Even more than the tailed coats they’re worn with, formal gloves are a sartorial protocol that has become completely foreign to the average man. While the role of outdoor gloves in protecting the hands from inclement weather is self-evident, there seems to be no logical purpose for covering one’s hands when indoors.
As I explain in the latest addition to The Black Tie Guide’s ‘Vintage’ section, nineteenth century etiquette manuals reveal that the practice of wearing dress gloves (in and out of doors) was partly a matter of aesthetics – “nothing can give a more perfect finish to a handsome dress than the covering for the hands” says an 1830 guide – as well as a more profound matter of social propriety. From The Handbook of the Man of Fashion:
Among trivial matters, nothing, perhaps more often distinguishes a gentleman from a plebeian, than the wearing of gloves. A gentleman has worn them so constantly from his earliest years, that he feels uncomfortably without them in the street, and he never suffers his hands to be bare for a moment; a vulgar person, on the contrary, finds himself incommoded by a warmth and confinement to which he is unaccustomed, and even if, in compliance with usage, he has supplied himself with what he deems unworthy of the expense, he will do no more than swing them between his fingers, or wrap them around his thumb. It is not enough that you carry gloves, you should wear them. It is a very common thing to see young men, parading upon some place of public promenade, expensively and even genteelly dressed, having canes, rings, &c., – but without gloves. The ungloved hand is the cloven foot of vulgarity.
These soigné accessories were particularly important during the evening as that was the time for dancing with the fairer sex at formal balls. Said one Victorian authority: “to touch the pure glove of a lady with uncovered fingers is – impertinent!”
Of course, it only stood to reason that the gloves worn with one’s evening attire should be of the highest quality. I didn’t realize just how decadent such finery can be until I noticed the price tag for the full-dress gloves for sale at A Suitable Wardrobe: US$525. That makes this accessory the single most expensive component of white tie outside of the suit itself (foregoing the optional silk top hat.)
Intrigued by the eye-popping price tag (for me, “reassuringly expensive” is not so much an advertising slogan as a life motto), I delved further into the details of full-dress gloves. Just as when I discovered the intricacies of the traditional full-dress shirt, my exploration opened a doorway into the unimaginably luxurious lifestyle enjoyed by high society in days gone by.
What struck me more than anything else is the exquisiteness of kidskin (aka ‘kid’), the traditional material used for these gloves. Made from the hide of young goats, it is the lightest, strongest and most flexible of all leathers, producing an effect poetically described by The Whole Art of Dress:
Kid of all materials is, without exception, the most beautiful, and sits best on the hand, from its exceeding pliability (when good); compressing the hand with a gentle pressure, like a second natural skin over the first.
Just how much they resemble a second skin when properly sized is evident in this photo of a vintage pair of such gloves. Note how the use of a button closure allows the bottom of the glove to snugly wrap the wrist when fastened.
You can find much more information on the fit, colours, upkeep and etiquette of dress gloves for both white tie and black tie at the Guide’s newly expanded Vintage Accessories page. For a description of the few occasions that still warrant such finery, see the White Tie Accompaniments page.
June 19, 2014
Recently discovered fashion plates from the turn of the century indicate that smoking was another activity that permitted the removal of gloves, but only for the hand holding the cigarette. No doubt this was a practical measure to keep the white gloves from being soiled by tar and nicotine.